Women Before Hell's Gate: Survivors of the Holocaust and their Memoirs
All of these female chroniclers describe the use of torture as a means of dehumanization. Six forms of physical and psychological torture are described: Random terror, sadistic roll calls, excremental assault, meaningless hard labor, and--of course--the ever-present threat of the gas chambers. Random terror is best described in the following passage from Grete Salus:
Plötzlich hörte ich eine Frauenstimme in einer fremden Sprache aufschrien wie in höchster Not--einige Male--. Dann ein Laufen, ein dumpfer Laut--Stille. Von irgendwo Schüsse. Ich hatte das Gefühl, so jetzt bin ich verrückt geworden. Das war ja gar nicht wahr, das war eine Halluzination. Produkt meiner gemarterten Nerven. [Suddenly I heard a woman's voice screaming in a foreign language that resonated with great fear--a number of times. Then there was a running, a muted sound, and then--silence. From somewhere there was the sound of shooting. I had the feeling as if I had gone crazy. That could not be true, I thought, that was a hallucination. The product of my agonized nerves.]14
Random acts of cruelty on the part of the Nazis were intended to afflict not only the immediate victims but were a technique to terrorize everybody in the vicinity and to create a tortuous effect on the bystanders who felt they could be next. The innocent bystanders were confronted with a mesmerizingly harsh reality that they did not want to accept because it threatened their psychological well-being and their ability to maintain the will to live.
Yet another way that the Nazis terrorized the inmates was through excruciatingly long roll calls, during which the detainees were forced to stand in formation. Both Grete Salus and Lucie Begov describe the roll call at Auschwitz as a brutal ritual whose memory continues to traumatize survivors. During the roll calls, the prisoners had to stand outside, exposed in their light clothing to the weather and to the random brutalities of their tormentors, for hours on end. According to Salus:
Antreten zum Zählappell. Wir stürmten alle heraus, mußten uns nun sechs Mann hintereinander aufstellen und stehen, 4 Stunden, 6 Stunden und auch noch mehr. Wir sahen vor den Blocks dieselben Gruppen warten. Endlich nach sechs Stunden kam eine deutsche Aufseherin, ließ sich die Zahl melden, wenn sie stimmte, konnten wir abtreten, wenn nicht, mußten wir stundenlang weiterstehen. . . . Appelle--eine der gefürchtesten und schlimmsten Institutionen im KZ. Hier im Auschwitz sahen wir ganze Gruppen zur Strafe niederknien. Manchmal wurde auch während des Appells selektiert, da mußten sich die Menschen nackt ausziehen--egal in welcher Jahreszeit--[We were called to roll call. We stormed out, had to stand in rows of six, four hours, six hours, and even longer. In front of the other barracks, we also saw the same groups waiting. Six hours later, a German guard finally came and announced the count. If it was correct, we were dismissed, if it was not correct, we had to continue standing for several hours more. . . . Roll call was one of the worst and most feared institutions in the concentration camp. In Auschwitz we saw entire groups forced to kneel for hours on end as a special punishment. Sometimes there were "selections" during the roll call, the people were forced to strip themselves naked regardless of which season it was.]15
During "selections," those prisoners who were unwell were singled out for immediate extermination in the gas chambers. Even for those who survived the selections, there was the spectacle of standing in formation for hours on end in an exhausted and famished state. Roll calls were exacerbated by the fact that those who complained about the toll these pointless tortures were taking on them brought further brutalities upon themselves:
Eine Bekannte, eine ältere Dame, welche bis zur Befreiung durch die Russen in Auschwitz verblieb, erzählte mir folgendes: Sie hatte Ruhr, mußte Appell stehen, bat die Blockälteste, ob sie austreten könne, die Antwort--eine Ohrfeige. Eine deutsche Aufseherin hatte es gesehen, trat auf sie zu und schlug so auf sie ein, daß sie ohnmächtig zusammenbrach, und für lange Zeit schwer erkrankte. [An acquaintance, an elderly lady, who remained in Auschwitz until her liberation by the Russians, told me the following: she had dystentery while she had to stand for roll call, and asked the baracks leader if she could leave and received a slap as an answer. A German guard saw it, went over to her and hit her so hard that she fell into unconsciousness and was dangerously ill for a long time.]16
Begov describes the roll call in the following terms:
Wir aber standen und wußten immer noch nicht, worauf wir warteten, während die Vernichtungsqualen Glied um Glied, Organ um Organ erfaßten, die besinnungslose Erschöpfung tiefer und schwerer wurde. . . .Dann kam der Moment, wo die Grenze des Unerträglichen erreicht war. Wir alle erlebten ihn immer und immer wieder, diesen Moment, wo es nicht mehr weiterging, die körperlichen Schmerzen den Geist verwirrten, abgebrochene Laute, ein irres Stammeln über die Lippe kam. [We stood without knowing what wewere waiting for as the destructive pains spread from limb to limb and organ to organ and the excruciating exhaustion became deeper and weightier. We all experienced it again and again, this moment, where it became unbearable, where the bodily pain confused the mind, interrupted syllables of a crazed stuttering came over the lips.]17
Begov's remembrance effectively describes not only the physical but also the psychological privations to which detainees were subjected during roll call. The agony of the roll calls became so intense that the detainees would start hallucinating and would begin talking to themselves. All of the survivors are extremely vivid in describing the hellish impact these painful roll calls had on them.
Another of the most common types of torture described by all of these writers is that of excremental assault. According to Harold Kaplan, the purpose of excremental assault was to produce a sense of self-disgust in the victims and thereby diminish their will to survive.18 Lucie Begov vividly describes the "Scheißkommando" as an example of this excremental assault. While imprisoned in Auschwitz, she was forced to empty large wagons filled with human excrement from latrines all over camp. The purpose of this exercise was to humiliate and degrade her and weaken her resistance to the deathly forces around her.
Anja Lundholm provides the following graphic description of excremental assault in the infirmary at the concentration camp, Ravensbrück. She was forced to empty: " . . . eine solche Konzentration von allem, was nur stinken kann, . . .bis zum Rande gefüllt mit ekelerrengenden Exkrementen: Urin, Kot, Eiter, Gedarm, schleimigen Auswurf und Leichenteilen, Restbestände der Sezierkunst der Lagerärzte." ["Such a concentration of everything that can only stink: filled to the brim with disgusting excrements: urine, feces, entrails, slimy scum, and body parts: the remains of the dissections of the camp doctors."]19 She describes her difficulties and her humiliation in trying to empty the awful mixture: "Der schätzungsweise ein Meter Kannister ist schwergewichtig wie eine kleine Bombe. Beim Anheben schwappt etwas von der widerwärtigen Brühe über meine Hände, macht sie glitschig." ["The cannister, which was approximately one meter high, was as heavy as a small bomb. While lifting it, some of the disgusting mixture slid over my hands, making them slippery."]20
Ruth Klüger also remembers forms of excremental assault in the Czech concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where there were not enough sanitary facilities for all the inmates:
Immer war eine Schlange vor dem Klo. Es lohnte sich, sich an die Zeiten zu gewöhnen, in denen man auf weniger Andrang hoffen durfte. Es gab auf jedem Stockwerk nur zwei Klosette, wenn ich mich recht erinnere. Im Gebäude waren Hunderte von Kindern, unter ihnen immer eine Menge, die an Durchfall, der Dauerkrankheit des Lagers, litten. [There was always a line in front of the bathroom. It was worthwhile to get used to using the bathroom at times when there was likely to be less traffic. There were only two bathrooms on every floor, if I remember correctly. Inside the building were hundreds of children among whom were many suffering from diarrhea, the eternal plague of the camp.]21
When Ruth Klüger and her mother were transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, they were bombarded with another form of excremental assault. They were transported in crowded cattle cars without food, water, or any form of sanitation: "Bald stank der Wagen nach Urin und Kot, man mußte dafür Gefäße von Mitgebrachten finden, und es gab nur eine Luke um diese zu leeren." ["The wagon soon stank from urine and excrement; one had to find containers for it from the things that one had brought with, and there was only one hatch through which they could be emptied."]22 Klüger has this comment about cattle cars: "Noch jetzt, wenn ich Güterwagen sehe, überläuft es mich. Es ist üblich, Viehwaggons zu sagen, aber auch Tiere werden ja normaleweise nicht so befördert, und wenn, so sollte es nicht sein." ["Even now, when I see goods wagons, I am overcome. It is common to call them livestock wagons, but even animals do not have to endure such suffering, and if they do, it should not be allowed."]23 Many people died while being transported to the east under these unbearable conditions.
The Nazis, feeling it was a moral imperative to dehumanize their victims, also subjected the detainees to hard labor, imposing tasks which were totally lacking in any economic or utilitarian function. Anja Lundholm describes one such sort of dehumanization. Detainees were forced to fill huge crates with sand, drench them to increase their heaviness, carry them for long distances, and then carry them back to their original place and dump them out. This procedure killed some inmates and those who stumbled or fell were often beaten to death by the camp guards. Another form of dehumanization that the Nazis practiced was making starving women go through fruit and vegetables intended for the SS and throw away those which were spoiled. On penalty of death, they could not eat any of them. Those who succumbed to the temptation of eating the forbidden foodstuffs were beaten into a state of unconsciousness. The impact on the hungry women was one of psychological torture. This incident is reported in Lundholm's book. She comments, "Im Erfinden immer neue Quälereien sind unsere Bewacherinnen groß. Mich setzen sie mit Vorlieb auf Arbeiten an, die weniger körperliche als seelische Folter bedeuten." ["Our guards are mighty in the invention of ever-new tortures. They prefer to assign me to tasks that are more in the realm of psychological torture than physical torture."]24