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Survival in a Time of Despair

Book Essay on: Paul Bartrop, Surviving the Camps: Unity in Adversity during the Holocaust:
( Lanham: University Press of America, 2000), 209pages.
UCSB: D 805 A2 B365 2000

by Lisbeth Vazquez
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at ?

About Lisbeth Vazquez

I am senior sociology major with a minor in history. I enjoy studying about social issues and the overall implications on our society. I feel it is important to analyze and understand the social behavior in order to find solutions to social issues. I am interested in understanding how victims of the Holocaust found ways to survive the conditions within the camps. I am especially interesting in understanding how during times of distress inmates found ways to cope with their surroundings and how they defined their life within the camps.

Abstract (back to top)

The book analyzes the different reasons why thousands of people were deported to these concentration camps. He focuses mainly on Bruno Bettelheim’s work to demonstrate the need to use historical accounts of survivors in order to give meaning and significance to a part of history we cannot understand. By taking into consideration the historical accounts of survivors, historians can make useful interpretations regarding history. Bartrop analyzes the survivor efforts to maintain their human dignity under oppressive conditions. Bartrop states that through collective efforts people in the concentration camps were able to maintain their human dignity. He specifically focuses on communal efforts made by inmates to band together in an effort to ensure each others survival. By finding ways to ensure that those within the hierarchical system would serve to protect fellow inmates they were able to ensure their safety for a little longer. Through the collaboration of inmates they were able to fight the injustices and inequality present within the concentration camps. Bartrop states that survival is something that does not only occur through individual effort but it is also something that comes from collective support. By banding together and by finding connections with one another they were able to create collective efforts of resistance. The conditions were felt by everyone in the camps and it was these conditions that provided them with support and encouragement from fellow inmates. This collective unity allowed them to maintain a sense of humanity and dignity within the camps. The SS were unable to break this communal support. Bartrop reiterates the significance in analyzing survivor accounts that demonstrates how collective forms of support were also important in understanding survival in the concentration camps, and how these collective efforts became a form of resistance against the SS and the Nazi regime who looked to demoralize and dehumanize all inmates.

Essay (back to top)

In Surviving the Camps: Unity in Adversity During the Holocaust, Paul R. Bartrop analyzes the different perspectives about camp survival during the Holocaust. Using a broad range of testimonials he offers an analytical view at Bruno Bettelheim, to show how survival in the concentration camps were in large part due to the increasing need to serve individuals’ needs through small groups formed within camps. Bartrop reiterates the significance in analyzing survivor accounts that demonstrates how collective forms of support were also important in understanding survival in the concentration camps, and how these collective efforts became a form of resistance against the SS and the Nazi regime who looked to demoralize and dehumanize all inmates.

Bartrop states that prisoners were sent to camps based on four reasons: expressing their opinions, belonging to specific “races”, common law criminals, and belonging to a group or committee that conflicted with the philosophy of National Socialism (Bartrop, 24). Prisoners were forced to carry some form of identification that determined what group they belonged to. As the increasing number of inmates came to be too much to handle, the SS began to give positions of authority to prisoners and in return they provided them with better living conditions. Without the compliance of these prisoners, also known as Kapos, the system of discipline would not have been possible. However, the power to determine who would obtain such a position was solely up to the SS. “By creating prisoner elite, a system that divided the prisoners in order to rule them. In doing so, they reaped enormous benefits, herein able to control the inmates with a minimum number of guards” ( Bartrop, 32). The structure of the camps shifted over the course of its twelve year existence. From political prisons to exploitable sources of labor, they ultimately led to the establishment of extermination centers for those who were racially undesirable to Nazis. The structures of the internment camps can be used to conduct social analysis on the repression and survival within the camps. However, due to the lack of written documents readily available to historians, Bartrop argues that it is necessary to look into personal testimonies if we want to get any understanding of life in internment camps.

Bartrop argues that in order to understand fully the holocaust we must take into account the stories of survivors especially when dealing with limited information in regards to the camp life. Bartrop applies Terrence Des Pres’ compilation of survivors’ stories to demonstrate how there is importance to the testimony of survivors accounts. There are incomplete events that we cannot account for with the information provided by historical records made available to historians. Through survivor accounts historians are able to take what they deem relevant to the historical accounts available to them. “Once the dry statistical data of a prisoner’s incarceration are known- the ‘why’ and the ‘where’ elements of a prisoner’s life, which generally differ from one person to another the contour of the camp experience appear remarkably uniform.” (Bartrop, 37) It provides historians with answers to the gaps left behind in the data provided. Furthermore, survivors’ stories account not only for their individual accounts of the event but they also bring a voice to those that have died. Through the use of survivor accounts Bartrop is able to analyze Bettelheim’s thesis on the behavior of prisoners and finds that it is fundamentally flawed. Bartrop looks to survivor stories to create a deeper understanding of the social conditions that made present within the internment camps. Furthermore, he looks to demonstrate the significance of their accounts to understanding how survival was in part made possible through social participation among other inmates. They were able to maintain their autonomy and fought off the SS intentions to deteriorate their humanity.

Testing Bettelheim’s thesis, Bartrop looks to demonstrate how studying the effects of the camp life on individuals resulted in the dehumanization and submission of these individuals. Bettleheim focuses on the effects of the camp life on individuals and their overall behavior in the prison camps. He identifies four goals of the SS in the concentration camps: “break the prisoner as individuals, spread terror among the rest of the population, provide the Gestapo members with a training ground in which they are educated to lose all human emotions, and to provide the Gestapo with an experimental laboratory in which to study the effective means for breaking civilian resistance” (Bartrop, 51). As a result the conditions of the inmates lead to four stages of development: the shock of the unlawful imprisonment, the move to the camps for first time, adapting to camp life, and last the full adaptation. Bettelheim argues that the adaptation and the acceptance of life within the camps were viewed differently. He argues that much of the shame and degradation came from “ ‘minor vile acts’ . There was a more profound effect than the infliction of severe physical pain. Only the previous experience the prisoners had of such punishment was in the case of adults rebuking small children” ( Bartrop, 53). These minor acts of punishment took away their power and control as adults outside the camps.

Bettelheim argues that by treating the inmates like children they were degrading them more than if they severely beat them. He also argues that this gave the SS a sense of father figure power and control over the prisoners. As a result, “the mass took precedence over the individual in shaping attitudes and determining behavior in the camp; moreover, outbreaks of individual activity were not tolerated by other inmates” (Bartrop, 55). He makes it a case to prove that each individual submitted to Nazi control and in turn collaborated with the Nazis as well. However, Bartrop states that by taking into account the conditions of camps many of these individuals were able to ensure temporary survival.

Bettelheim’s argument on the behavior of prisoners in the internment camps was seen as relatively concrete and comprehensive; however, Bartrop discusses his work to provide a better understanding of his overall argument. Bettelheim stated that by allowing the Nazis to do as they pleased and not resisting they took away a different outcome to Hitler’s regime. He argues that prisoners were forced into becoming “impotent and infantilized individuals whose personalities were reshaped by the harshness of life in this, the most extreme of any extreme situation” (Bartrop, 61). Bettelheim had neglected to look beyond this and overlooked the general group interaction among prisoners. Bartrop uses criticism from previous writers to demonstrate how Bettelheim’s thesis lacks support and consistency. Ernest Rappaport points out through the use of survivor narratives that “only rapid submission could save his life, at least temporarily. He had to learn to effect a balance between a life-saving apathy in regard to hi environment and ever-ready alertness” ( Bartrop, 65). The accounts taken from prisoners were not taken into consideration by Bettelheim. He neglected to view the experience on an individual aspect in order to understand the group dynamic. The need to submit became the only survival mechanism during a time of uncertain and distress. Des Pres, however, challenges Bettelheim by allowing survivors to tell the actual conditions and the way of life in the internment camps. ”De Pres held that life in the concentration camps was intensely social and depended on such basic elements of human behavior as the maintenance of a sense of dignity and conscience…a form of collective resistance at every level of the camp experience” (Bartrop, 68). The need to survive depended on the help they had amongst each other. Bettelheim shifted his ideal from behavior to survival and argue that behavior did not determine survival. His argument became increasingly contradictory when he openly stated that “the prisoners, to survive, had to help one another” (Bartrop, 69). The camps’ social dynamics became the central focus on understanding the efforts of survival by inmates and it provides historians with basic understanding of the conditions endured by inmates.

Bartrop uses a broad range of testimonials to argue that survival was often due in part to the unity among inmates. Even though individual efforts were detrimental to inmates survival this would not have been possible without some form of collective reliance present within groups in internment camps. Bettelheim’s arguments stated otherwise. He argued that individual efforts made it possible to survive. Submission into the system to him was a form of suicide by individuals that allowed Nazis to control them. However, Bartrop uses arguments from Des Pres to demonstrate that the oppressive conditions that they dealt with in the camps forced them to be submissive to the conditions in order to survive. As a result the conditions created by the Nazi regime forced them to degrade themselves. Bartrop states that identity transformation was attempted by SS in order “to encourage fear and uncertainty, physical incarceration, the enforcement of inhuman conditions of living, and ultimately, immersion in mud and excrement which sought to rob prisoners of remaining vestiges of their former identity.” (Bartrop, 81) The conditions and the daily battle to survive were largely due to the system of abuse that were created by the SS. Bartrop states that “the longer prisoners were refused permission to act as they have done outside the wire, the greater was the potential that they might conform to the expectations demanded of them by the SS” (Bartrop, 93). By taking away their access to adequate food, proper clothing, hygiene, and providing a system of fear and abuse, the SS were able to lower prisoners’ sense of humanity.

This is not to say that there was no form of individual effort, on the contrary, there had to be an individual drive to survive, but Bartrop argues that keeping their individual efforts to survive would not have been possible without some form of collective support. Hope to see their family or the moral support from friends enabled them to remain strong and to endure the conditions. This did not determine their survival, because ultimately it was up to the SS to determine who lived and died, as much as it determined their sense of maintaining their dignity and humanity.

The SS, however, were not able to destroy prisoners completely. The SS underestimated their prisoners because they believed that their system of oppression would completely destroy them. Many individuals found ways to fight against these forms of oppression internally rather than externally. “Positive ways of coping with the camp situation and opposing the Nazis were found by men and women who were determined to deny the SS any foothold in their attempt at stripping away such fundamental human qualities in dignity and morality” ( Bartrop, 98). Many refused to be dehumanized, and although they did as they were told they chose to not allow the SS to destroy their mental health. Bartrop states that each day increased their chances at death. They looked to alleviate their current position within the camp in order to provide them with a greater chance of survival. “Only the reinforcement offered by attachment to a group could provide any hope: survival was not something individual prisoners were generally capable of achieving alone.” (Bartrop, 101) Support from others was detrimental to the survival of these individuals. The strains on families and separation led to increasing uncertainty. However, it also provided them with a sense of hope. The bonds among family tended to grow as they depended on each other for support. They “persisted in the concentration camps in order to give their members a chance at easing their situation. That was the fundamental aim of all prisoners and all groups of prisoners, and without it the very justification for group existence was lost” ( Bartrop, 115). By collectively trying to maintain some form of connection to civilization they could adapt to the conditions of the camp through group effort. By acting together they were able to offer each other a form of support that in many cases was needed or lost with loss of their family.

What Bartrop wants to show is that although there are different experiences within the different camps and even within different groups. The act of helping, encouraging, and cooperating was something that was sought. ] “Concentration camp prisoners survived not only by the grace of the SS, or by Allied victory and liberation, but also by their own means...those who survived the liberation were able to do so largely because of the social networks that emerged in the camp” ( Bartrop, 160). Bartrop shows that survival was not only an individual effort but a a collective support. The conditions were felt by everyone in the camps and it was these conditions that allowed them to depend on one another for support and encouragement. This sense of collective unity allowed them to maintain a sense of humanity and dignity within the camps, and it was something that SS were unable to break or take from the prisoners.

The preservation of these basic human rights allowed inmates to continue to look forward to surviving. Bartrop’s argument against Bettelheim’s thesis demonstrates the need to look beyond what is seen as historical. The benefit of taking into account the history of the Holocaust demonstrates how we need to look beyond the basic statistical information left behind. The accounts of the survivors enables us to find different interpretations and stories that answer the “why” and “where” question. Bartrop believes that we must not discredit the information provided by survivors, but rather should look at the overall impact it has on our historical interpretation of the event. The survival of individuals needed their individual effort but it would not have been made possible without the collective reliance of groups within the internment camps. The power may have been with the SS but the freedom to maintain their human values was maintained through means of support and hope within these groups.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • No published reviews could be found for this book in early 2010,

Books and Articles

  • Eve Nussbaum Soumerai and Carol D. Schulz, Daily Life During the Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1998)

    The author examines survivor accounts to provide insight to the horrible conditions and the struggles that many had to deal with in the camps. The book looks into the survival of families, including how parents found ways to resist, such as the education of their children, religion, and customs. The author uses historical accounts to demonstrate the inhumanity humans are capable of , and discusses how antisemitism came to play a large role in the Holocaust.

  • Paul Chodoff, "The Holocaust and Its Effects on Survivors: An Overview,", Political Psychology Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 147-157 Published by: International Society of Political Psychology Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3791989

    The author discusses the Holocaust and its effects on survivors, especially the way they see themselves and others. She looks at accounts from survivors to describe the living conditions in the concentration camps. Those conditions and the events in the camps were continual reminders of the conditions even well after the event. Antisemitism continued after the war. Facing the fact that many family members did not survive and having lost everything they owned affected them on many levels.

Relevant Websites

  • Sandra S. Williams, “Impact of the Holocaust on Survivors and their Children” Retrieved 3/6/10

    Using accounts from before the Holocaust up to liberation, the author outlines some of the social implications of the internment camps. A feeling of disempowerment and the loss of self were continuous issues. The hope of finding one's family moved some, but the chance of finding surviving family members was slim. Many victims had to deal with the psychological trauma alone and many questioned why they survived and not others. The war brought with a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty but survival also brought with it a sense of guilt.

  • The United Jewish Federation of Pittsburg, Jewish Life during the Holocaust The Jewish Federations of North America, Inc. 2010

    The United Jewish Federation of Pittsburg presents a series of articles that answer questions about the Holocaust and the issues that arose because of it. In this specific article they discuss life in hiding, the ghettos, Jewish resistance, and life in the concentration camps. Two types of camps are discussed. There were the concentration/labor camps and death camps. Concentration camp life consisted of very little food and hard labor. Many inmates were forced to work meaningless task that were for the most part exhausting. The conditions in the concentration camps caused many to die from overwork. There were also instances were inmates were transported to death camps were they would be sent to the gas chambers. The living conditions were horrible and they were faced with disease, hunger, and horrible treatment by the Nazis. The inhumane conditions and treatment by the Nazi group created tough conditions that made it difficult for all inmates to try to survive.

  • United States Memorial Museum, Concentration Camps; 1933-1939 (accessed 3-5-2010)

    The article discusses the conditions that led the internment of Jews, Jehova’s witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies, and others accused of socially deviant behavior. The article focuses on life within the camps and the hard labor that resulted in thousands of deaths, as well as malnourishment and SS brutality to the extent of random killings.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Lisbeth Vazquez on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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