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Camp Survival During the Holocaust: The Centrality of Decency and Humanness in the Face of Extremity

Book Essay on: Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps
( New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 211pages.
UCSB: D 810.J4 D474

by Kathryn Coulston
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 Amazon.com Page

About Kathryn Coulston

I am a fourth year History major and English minor. While my interests in history primarily focus on Europe prior to the twentieth century, the Holocaust proves an anomaly. During my late elementary school years, I became fascinated with the Holocaust, reading any book I could find on the subject. I was fortunate enough to travel with my family, and visits to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and throughout Europe furthered my interest. I chose to read Terrence Des Pres’ book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps because I wished to learn more about the psychological experience of survivors within the death camps.

Abstract (back to top)

In The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, Terrence Des Pres gives detailed descriptions about the horrors inflicted at death camps during the Holocaust. He defines survivors as people who not only retain their life, but also maintain a sense of dignity and humanness. Des Pres' book focuses on the psychological aspects of camp life, illustrating how sleep deprivation, excrement, and the reality of nightmare were used as a means of mental torture and degradation. Des Pres draws on sources of fiction, survivor testimony, and even scientific study to illustrate the extremity that pervaded life in the death camps. Des Pres convincingly asserts that survival is due to retention of civility through means of organization and resistance, all the while emphasizing the inability of the public to fully understand experience within the death camps.

Essay (back to top)


During World War II, both the Nazis and Russians established concentration camps in an attempt to eradicate those they believed harmful to their country in a more organized and prompt fashion. In the name of speed and efficiency, however, atrocities were committed, and millions were subjected to horrors never before imagined. In The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, Terrence Des Pres discusses these acts of violence and cruelty, and analyzes how those imprisoned within the camps were able to endure and outlive such conditions. Survivor testimonials, in the form of both novels and other documents, are the basis of Des Pres' description of the tortures within the camps and other events during the war. Secondary sources, ranging in scope from novels about war experience, to psychology, philosophy, and biology, are also important throughout the book, helping Des Pres support his claims and dismiss opposing ideas. Des Pres vividly portrays the horrific experience and degradation of many survivors, often contradicting common beliefs about camp life and the survivors themselves. He convincingly illustrates that the retention of dignity and humanness through social interaction, displayed through organization and other resistance, is crucial to survival, due in part to biological systems within human beings; in doing so, Des Pres also establishes the inability of those outside the death camp experience to fully comprehend and contextualize the extremity survivors faced.

The Survivor in Fiction:

In order to illustrate people’s assumptions about survivors, Des Pres begins his book with a discussion of survivors in fiction, and how this affects the public conscience. Literature’s tragic heroes have always related death to heroism, fighting evil until they are struck down, only to have their message become even more transcendental and powerful. Such ideas seem contradictory to the story of the survivor, who sees life, not death, as the ultimate glory. While evil and injustice has pervaded the lives of martyrs, various historical figures and the heroes of literature, the lives of survivors were defined by the extremity of such adversity. This crucial fact, Des Pres asserts, is often forgotten when dealing with the story of survivors. Fiction is therefore essential in providing “images whose formal purity brings some part, at least, of the world’s confusion into focus…some framework fixed which mediates the difference between that world and ours” (Des Pres, 6). Through fiction, the physical and mental struggles of survivors become apparent, and thus readers can begin to see survivors’ quest for life as an understandable and worthy goal. Yakov Bok, a character in The Fixer, is imprisoned under false accusations, based primarily on antisemitic thought, and denied a fair public trial. In outright opposition to the notion that death is admirable, and thus living is somehow not, Yakov Bok views survival as victory. Dying would in reality be an acceptance of his victimization and a confirmation of his guilt (Des Pres, 11). In another example, Des Pres asserts that survival was not based simply on living through atrocities, but also retention of humanness and dignity. In The Plague, Rieux claims that extremity forces people to make a conscious effort to do things, such as burying the dead or caring for the sick, that in times of normalcy would have been done without a thought. Being a survivor, then, is based on remaining human, and the only way of combating a “plague” is to act with integrity and decency (Des Pres, 9). Such illustrations allow insight into and understanding of the extremity of camp life, and thus oppose many death-related conceptions set by western culture.

Nonfiction Testimony and the Desire to Record:

Documents, too, become significant in Des Pres' examination of survivors’ experiences. Though fictionalized literature helps readers to resist common notions about death and survival, documents written by the survivors themselves also exist as “evidence that the moral self can resurrect itself from the inhuman depths through which it must pass” (Des Pres, 50). These documents make apparent that many survivors feel a need to bear witness and record. Often, as in the case of Donat, who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and then lived through Maidenek, Auschwitz, and Dachau, the feeling of duty to remember and record gave strength to survivors and provided a meaning to their endurance (Des Pres, 31). Some people find this desire to share and record odd, and explain this desire merely as survivors’ attempts to deal with the guilt and neurosis they, as perceived by these people, must endure for living when so many others perished. Robert Lifton, who studies primarily the survivors of Hiroshima, supports this theory. However, Des Pres adequately contradicts it, claiming that such assumptions by Lifton do not allow for prolonged periods of crisis, and thus are ignorant of the extremity of the situations within the death camps. Des Pres goes further to address those of the public who may have this view, presenting the idea that their wish to undermine survivors’ authority may in reality be an attempt to justify their own “conspiracy of silence” and allow “a balance between that pain and [their] own [to be] restored” (Des Pres, 41). It becomes apparent that in undermining the stories of survivors, and criticizing their need to record, the public is in fact doing a disservice to itself, preventing any sort of healing that may come, both to the survivors themselves, and also to the rest of the world.

Modes of Psychological Torture:

Restoration and reconciliation cannot be had until people become aware of the cruelty and horror survivors were forced to suffer. The actual extremity experienced by survivors becomes significant in Des Pres' analysis, and helps support his assertion that survival is not merely the act of living, but retaining some element of decency as well. Extremity is defined by Des Pres as “a situation in which men and women must live without accommodation” (Des Pres, 181). The life in the death camps, where normal bodily functions were often used against the prisoners and manipulated into a means of torture, certainly falls under this description. Debasing people to live in their own excrement, causing severe embarrassment and self-loathing, became a key feature of the death camps. This subjugation to filth and excrement was systematic, as seen by the layout of the camps. Cleaning facilities were nowhere to be found, and the latrines consisted of open pits with a wooden plank and railing for prisoners to squat upon (Des Pres, 62, 58). Prisoners were never allowed to relieve themselves at will, which proved difficult since diarrhea and dysentery plagued most prisoners. Kapos would frequently stop prisoners for questioning right before they reached the latrine and require them to perform squats until the movement caused the sphincter to give way, causing prisoners to defecate on themselves. Such action gave the Kapo an excuse to beat prisoners for disobeying orders (De Pres, 57-58). In explaining the psychological detriment such conditions caused, Des Pres notes the cultural relationship between cleansing and purification to morality and respect; corruption is commonly likened to dirt and contamination (68). Subjection to such circumstances caused greater turmoil to prisoners than hunger or fear of death (Des Pres, 66). It becomes clear to readers that while the muck of blood and excrement created unbearable, disease-ridden conditions, the systematic exposure caused psychological affects as well, leading many prisoners to feel degraded and inhuman.

Des Pres asserts that sleep, too, was used as a means of torment throughout camp life, both literally and figuratively. Prisoners were deprived adequate sleep, causing them to lose self-control and the ability to distinguish what was real (Des Pres, 78). Figurative sleep also became dangerous for prisoners upon entering the camps. The reality of the death camps shocked many prisoners on arrival; what had been reserved to the pages of books, the stages of plays, or the canvases of paintings had somehow sprung to life. Death within the initial period of arrival, beyond being sent directly to the gas chamber, was extremely common. Bruno Bettelheim claims that this was due in large part because the prisoners lost the will to live. Des Pres refutes this assertion, countering that death was actually caused by a lack of information about, or preparation for, the horrors of the camps (Des Pres, 79). What truly affected the rate of survival was when prisoners were able to wake from the shocking nightmare of atrocities and begin to make a conscious effort to stay alive.

Survivor Resistance and Contextualizing Extremity:

The will to survive, and the actions taken by many survivors, has frequently been criticized and condemned by those who claim that self-interest and disregard for others ruled the actions of survivors. While self-interest was present within the camps, Des Pres makes it obvious that helping others was in truth a regular occurrence, furthering his claim that retaining aspects of civility was an element of true survival. Contradictions of self-interest and helping others are in fact widespread throughout survivor testimony. Sim Kessel, a survivor of Auschwitz, asserts that there was little concern for others within the camps, yet relates how two strangers helped him after he collapsed in the snow (Des Pres, 98). While actions of some prisoners are often viewed as selfish and uncompassionate, these actions are often misconstrued as giving in to the system of evil. In truth, the conditions of camp life were meant to debase and kill the spirit of prisoners as a precursor to killing the body, and the extremity of camp life repeatedly motivated survivors to manipulate camp systems in acts of retaliation and revolt. Taking jobs within the SS administration could be viewed negatively, but these prisoners were often crucial to the survival of others. Nurses supplied medicines, and those in clerk or office positions were able to warn others when selection would take place (Des Pres, 120). “Organizing” became a camp euphemism for any illegal act, be it stealing food or obtaining clothing, and was extremely widespread in the death camps (Des Pres, 105). In Auschwitz, prisoners lucky enough to work in “Canada,” an area where the sorting of prisoners’ seized possessions occurred, often risked severe punishment by smuggling goods back to their comrades in the main camp (Des Pres, 106). Through testimonials, Des Pres describes the importance of gift-giving, which became important not only in the sharing of real aid and boosting morale, but also in asserting solidarity and forging irrevocable links (136, 139). While egotistical behavior may appear present within the camps, it is crucial to remember the immense effort prisoners put forth to help others while they, too, were fighting to survive. The constant threat of death created an even greater need for solidarity, not an individualistic outlook.

Such contradictory actions may be difficult to grasp by those not experiencing extremity, but Des Pres proves the significance of understanding the plight of camp survivors. The obsession with actions within the camp, and the subsequent focus on banal and almost primal self-interest can be explained by the public’s attempt to disengage themselves from the experience by painting it as something other and inhuman. Some who study the camp experience relate egotism to a regression to infantile behaviors, but Des Pres challenges such beliefs by proving that both characteristics are radically different. Reconciling the ruthless objective action of egotism and the passive ignorance of infantilism is quite difficult (Des Pres, 151-52). Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor himself, asserts that autonomy was really the only way people survived the camps, criticizes actions of those who did not live through the war, such as the Frank family, and misrepresents the testimony of others, as he did with Eugen Kogon (Des Pres, 159-160). While Bettelheim claims the authority of a survivor, Des Pres makes it clear that Bettelheim neither experienced the camps during the time of total destruction, nor takes into account varying contexts that may have made his situation much different than others such as the Frank family, who lived in Holland in hiding without direct contact with camp oppressors (157). With many aligning themselves with Bettelheim’s views, it is understandable how the camp experience and the actions of the survivors could be detrimentally misunderstood.

Biology of Humanness and Social Interaction:

Des Pres makes a strong case for fully understanding the context of survivors and camp life. Through his descriptive analysis, readers come to understand the scope of extremity and psychological hardship survivors had to endure. Their constant confrontation with death, often taking risks that might end their lives in the hopes that it would in actuality preserve it, becomes more reasonable within the explanations Des Pres offers. While others like Bettelheim have criticized survivors for gift-giving, organizing, and group formations, Des Pres contends that such actions are not only instigated by situation, but are in fact effects of biological evolution. During extremity, survival may “depend on life itself, a set of activities evolved through time in successful response to crisis, the sole purpose of which is to keep going” (Des Pres, 192). When faced with crisis, humans, like animals, react socially, instead of reacting on an individual level, and work to ensure survival. Social grouping and the desire to live has been engrained in our biology, and during extremity, especially, it becomes the most pronounced. While some may see selfish actions of survivors as regression, biologically, altruistic actions are indeed the ultimate evolution of man.


Throughout the book, Des Pres excellently supports his thesis. Through his use of topics from fiction, testimony, and even biology, Des Pres sheds light on camp life during the Holocaust and the extremity that survivors were forced to endure. In order to convey both the physical and psychological toll suffered by survivors, Des Pres effectively describes how excrement, sleep deprivation, and the reality of nightmare were used to torture prisoners and make them feel subhuman. Through these accounts, it becomes apparent that survival was not based solely on the survival of the body, but of the spirit as well through retention of human decency and concern for communal good. Des Pres claims, “what we experience symbolically, in spirit only, survivors must go through in spirit and body” (174). Denied of their identity, relationships, and possessions, the spirits and bodies of prisoners became mutually reliant. If the body was harmed in some way, the survivor’s will would be compromised and vice versa. While Des Pres supports his own thesis very well, and this book proves a significant addition to the field of Holocaust study, I feel the significance of his book lies elsewhere. Through various examples like the one above, readers come to understand that the extremity of the camp experience is difficult, if not impossible, to relate to the normalcy of everyday life. The experiences of survivors were horrific and almost unbelievable, and because of this we must remember to not liken the suffering and endurance of the survivor to anything else, or try to explain it using our own experience. Survivors and the experience of camp life have become something wholly of themselves, and people should be both cautious and thorough when attempting to explain the horrors of the Holocaust.


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

Book Reviews

  • David Blumenthal, Jewish Social Studies • Blumenthal, David. Jewish Social Studies Vol. 41 No. 3/4. Indiana University Press (Summer-Autumn, 1979): p. 330-332.

    This review gives a summary of each chapter within the book, arguing that each chapter is its own study within itself. It applauds Des Pres' book as something other than a warning for the future, but rather a well researched and analyzed explanation of the past, which goes beyond a simple historical account to incorporate social, psychological, and moral rationalizations. Its only criticism is Des Pres' failure to clarify morality as a biological effect.

  • Thomas Hunt, Library Journal • Hunt, Thomas C. Library Journal Vol. 101 Issue 16 (September, 1976): p.1861-1861.

    This review is brief, but praises the book highly. Hunt gives an adequate description of the main premise of the book and what Des Pres describes. Hunt says that narratives and examples of camp life are then “skillfully” analyzed on various levels.

  • Firstname Lastname,

Books and Articles

  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1960) 309. Main Library HM271 .B42

    This book relates Bettelheim’s experiences in Dachau and Buchenwald, and focuses on the psychological affects he witnessed. He asserts that such extreme, dehumanizing conditions eventually cause prisoners to withdraw from social integration. While such behaviors are adapted to the conditions of camp life, function during ordinary times would be impossible. In the final section of the book, Bettelheim extends his conclusions to the German public, and adequately assesses prevalent social ideas, such as professional pride and autonomy, which may have supported prisoners’ reactions to extreme situations.

  • Donald Gutierrez, Human Rights Quarterly Donald Gutierrez, “Incarceration and Torture: The Self in Extremity.” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Aug., 1984), pp. 284-308.

    This article analyzes the act of surviving in respect to the self when faced with extremity. Gutierrez examines three accounts, two nonfiction, one fiction; Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and George Orwell’s 1984. His comparisons allow insight into the various ways people respond to extremity, asserting the emphasis on the self. 1984 is used primarily to illustrate the ability of pain and torture as a means of altering human behaviors. Gutierrez concludes that Frankl reflects outwardly in the face of extremity, remembering and ruminating on the outside world, which sharply contrasts with Timerman’s wish to forget everything ordinary and routine in order to prevent comparison to a world vastly different than one of extremity.

  • Peter Erspamer, Literature and Ethnic Discrimination Peter R. Erspamer, "Women Before Hell's Gate: Survivors of the Holocaust and their Memoirs," Literature and Ethnic Discrimination, edited by Michael J. Meyer, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997, pp. 171-186

    This essay gives an interesting perspective on the female experience of the dehumanization present within death camps. Specifically, six modes of psychological torture are discussed: “random terror, sadistic roll calls, excremental assault, meaningless hard labor, and--of course--the ever-present threat of the gas chambers.” In Parts III and IV, means of rehumanization employed by survivors are adequately described.

  • Firstname Lastname, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) 307.

    This book analyzes the extent of morality present within the concentration camps, and later relates it to life beyond camp confines. The extent of morality held by inmates, oppressors, and bystanders are examined. Todorov differentiates between heroic action (courage occurring in times of duress, such as war) and ordinary merits found in everyday life (caring and sharing), and holds ordinary morality in higher esteem. Such research takes on an interestingly personal tone as Todorov examines his own moral actions under Communism in Bulgaria. Although Todorov acknowledges that current technology makes dehumanization easier than ever before, he concludes that human goodness cannot be taken away, even in the face of extremity, unless humans undergo a severe sociological change.

  • Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Press, 1993) 356. Main Library DD 256.5 S5813

    This book is an excellent source on psychology within the concentration camp. It is broken into five parts: Introduction, Space and Time, Social Structures, Work, Violence and Death. Sofsky asserts that the absolutism and lack of laws within the camp structure fostered the brutality and extremity present within camp life. From the entry process, where prisoner individuality was destroyed, to the establishment of an unknown future within time and space, the psychological torment of the concentration camps comes horrifically alive. Sofsky makes it apparent that every aspect of the camp, from the manipulation of time to the physical layout, supported and encouraged the dehumanizing power asserted by the Nazis onto the prisoners. SS officials were left to do as they wished with their prisoners, whether they wanted to torture or kill, and Sofsky claims that their actions were not ones of subjection but rather the true display of their characters.

Relevant Websites

  • Gord McFee, The Operation Reinhard Extermination Camps Gord McFee [The Holocaust History Project], “The Operation Reinhard Extermination Camps,” February 12, 2008.

    This page is part of the online archive The Holocaust History Project, which gives users free access to essays, documents, photographs, and even recordings related to the Holocaust. There is abundant information from both primary and secondary sources, covering a wide array of topics, including refutation of Holocaust deniers. A helpful “Quick Facts About the Holocaust” section enables visitors to quickly access information pertaining to commonly researched themes about the Holocaust, which includes references and sometimes links for continued study.

  • Jehn Menszer, Concentration Camps John Menszer [Holocaust Survivors], “Concentration Camps,” 1999.

    This page provides a general overview of the concentration camps, giving a concise but detailed description of who was held within the camps and what they experienced. Aspects relating to survival are also briefly discussed. The site itself provides an Encyclopedia on Holocaust-related topics, as well as numerous survivor testimonies. Some survivor narratives are even available in audio form.

  • Robert Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide Robert Jay Lifton [The Mazal Library: A Holocaust Resource], “The Nazis Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide,” February 4, 2010.

    This page is the beginning of the complete text of Lifton’s book on genocide. His primary focus is on Auschwitz and the medical research that occurred there, including that of the infamous Dr. Mengele. He ends the book by discussing the psychology of genocide itself, relating the idea of doubling, which he asserts was the Nazis’ main psychological application. The rest of this privately funded site gives visitors access to over “20,000 books, microfilm rolls, pamphlets, and ephemera related to the Holocaust, antisemitism, racism and bigotry.” Such documents include numerous transcriptions of the Nuremburg Trials, as well as complete texts of various books and graphic sources illustrating camp life and other experiences during WWII.

  • Roland Hill, Majdanek Concentration Camp Rowland Hill [Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team], “Majdanek Concentration Camp (a.k.a. Lublin KL): Reception, Prisoners Daily Life, Sub- Camps,” 2007.

    This page relates the experiences of daily life within Majdanek, discussing conditions relating to food, work, and housing, among others. The general site, Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team (devoted to commemorating Holocaust victims), is geared towards informing students about the horrors of the Holocaust by providing further information on the subject based on authenticated sources.

  • , Personal Histories: Camps United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Personal Histories: Camps,” 2010.

    This page is part of the greater museum website for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It provides a number of personal accounts illustrating experiences within various concentration camps. The rest of the site presents visitors with information about the museum as well as material related to the Holocaust. Among documents and other research sources, the website also provides useful topical bibliographies, allowing visitors to continue studying particular topics relating to the Holocaust.

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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 Kathryn Coulston on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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