At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944
by David Koker
NOTA DE LEITURA
Este livro não é de leitura fácil. São 336 páginas de texto maciço, quase sempre deprimente, onde o próprio diário tem 260 páginas. O estilo é pesado, praticamente não literário, porque a narrativa não trata de coisas bonitas. Depois é um texto não revisto, está publicado como saiu das mãos de quem estava prisioneiro e escrevia às escondidas em cadernos escolares. A leitura não é agradável, a mim exigiu-me mesmo algum esforço e, na parte final, o estilo degrada-se ainda mais.
Mas, como veremos, é um documento insubstituível.
Foi publicado na Holanda em 1977, com o título Dagboek geschreven in Vught . A família e os amigos do autor quiseram agora publicar a tradução em Inglês, de modo a dar-lhe a projecção que o livro merece.
O autor nasceu em 27 de Novembro de 1921, quando os pais Jacques Koker e a mãe Judith tinham respectivamente 35 e 21 anos. Cinco anos depois nasceu um irmão, Max. Eram judeus de famílias já na Holanda desde há muitas gerações. O pai era judeu praticante, a mãe nem por isso.
O pai tal como David, o autor, morreram no Holocausto. O irmão sobreviveu, assim como a mãe. Esta nunca se resignou com a perda do filho mais velho; morreu em 1979.
O Holocausto na Holanda quase eliminou totalmente a comunidade judaica. Havia em 1941 154 000 judeus, incluindo 25 000 que tinham fugido da Alemanha nos anos anteriores e 4 300 judeus sefarditas, que invocavam a ascendência portuguesa e espanhola. No final da guerra, terão sobrevivido 35 000. A maior parte destes sobreviventes estava em campos de trabalho. Na Holanda, havia os judeus escondidos, judeus de ascendência portuguesa (poucas centenas ainda a serem investigados) e judeus casados com gentios, que tinham escapado à deportação.
Havia na Holanda uma vaga de anti-semitismo que não era muito diferente da alemã. Basta reparar nas denúncias de judeus escondidos, como foi o caso da família de Anne Frank.
O Governo Holandês fugiu para Inglaterra com a Rainha e a administração pública ficou totalmente subordinada ao ocupante alemão. Os representantes da comunidade judaica cooperaram com as autoridades no estabelecimento do censo dos judeus, na esperança errada de melhor os defender. Instituíram até um sistema de sperren, isto é, dispensas para certas categorias e profissões de serem deportados. Os alemães respeitaram o sistema inicialmente, mas depois deportaram toda a gente.
Toda a família Koker, pai, mãe e os dois filhos, foram internados em Vught em 11 de Fevereiro de 1943. David iniciou imediatamente a redacção do Diário. Apesar da sua juventude, tinha já obra publicada, sobretudo poesia. Ainda puseram a hipótese de os dois rapazes se refugiarem junto de amigos, mas nessa altura, David acreditava muito na força da família unida e desistiu dessa hipótese. A sua namorada Nattie David, judia também, escondeu-se em casa de amigos e sobreviveu. Faleceu em 2000 sem nada ter revelado da sua relação com David.
O campo de Vught passou por diversas fases. Inicialmente desdobrava-se em campo de internamento de judeus (Judenauffangslager) e prisão de criminosos políticos e de direito comum (Schutzhaftlager). Foi também campo de trabalho, nomeadamente desde que a Philips aí colocou algumas linhas de montagem, na esperança de salvar alguns judeus. Por fim, ficou um campo de pessoal em trânsito (Durchgangslager).
O livro tem uma feição dupla: por um lado o autor procura descrever uma vida próxima da normal, as pessoas, as relações, os sentimentos; por outro tenta descrever as barbaridades que no campo se passavam. No final de Janeiro de 1944, o comandante do campo, Adam Grünewald (1902-1945) mandou fechar 74 mulheres num espaço de 9 m2! Ao fim de catorze horas, quando se abriram a portas, 10 delas tinham morrido sufocadas. Foi demitido e julgado no tribunal das SS, onde o condenaram a 3 anos e meio de prisão. Himmler perdoou-o e mandou-o para a frente leste, onde morreu em combate. Foi substituído no comando do campo por outro ainda mais violento, Hans Hüttig. Este encontrando ainda 672 judeus no campo ( já tivera mais de 8 000), achava que estes teriam também de ser liquidados. As condições de vida no campo tornaram-se muito mais severas. Tendo perdido todas as possibilidades de comunicar com o exterior, o Diário de David termina em 8 de Fevereiro de 1944.
A 2 de Junho, os 499 judeus que restavam (incluindo Jacques, Judith e os dois filhos) foram metidos num comboio para Leste. Saíram em Auschwitz. Ali foram separados: a mãe foi para o campo de mulheres em Birkenau e os homens pra Auschwitz Stammlager (campo principal). Foram tatuados com os seus números(esta prática não existia em Vught). Ainda debaixo da protecção da Philips, conseguiram não ser logo eliminados. Foram trabalhar para uma firma chamada Hagenuk, em Reichenbach, mas tinham de ficar num campo em Langenbielau, a 4 km. de distância, fazendo diariamente o caminho a pé para o trabalho.
Com a perspectiva da derrota da Alemanha, as condições de abastecimento pioraram. A comida começou a faltar. A 4 de Fevereiro de 1945, morreu o pai, Jacques, com 58 anos. Max e David estavam também muito doentes. Max foi mandado para Dörnhau, teoricamente para se restabelecer, mas praticamente para morrer, pois era um Krepierungslager. Por sorte dele, um preso bem colocado num campo próximo - Würstegiersdorf, viu o nome dele e de outros conhecidos de Vught e conseguiu levá-los para junto dele e tratá-los. Ali foram libertados pelo Exército Soviético em 8 de Maio de 1945.
Nos últimos dias de Janeiro de 1945, David foi apanhado a tirar uma ração extra para o pai moribundo. Já não tinha saúde para recuperar da sova que apanhou como castigo. A morte do pai deverá tê-lo deixado também muito abanado. Uma semana depois, já não tinha quaisquer forças para trabalhar. Os SS queriam desfazer-se das “bocas inúteis”. Noutra altura, teria sido mandado para Auschwitz para ser gaseado, mas desde 27 de Janeiro, Auschwitz estava nas mãos do Exército Russo. Um oficial qualquer decidiu meter todos os doentes num comboio sem qualquer comida e completamente gelado, em direcção a Dachau a mais de 600 km. Era um Krepierungszug (comboio da morte). À chegada, oitenta por cento tinham morrido, incluindo David.
O livro não narra grandes acontecimentos. É a vida de privações de todos os dias com pouca comida, pouca roupa, muito frio, muita fome e maus tratos. Os truques para enviar e receber cartas dos amigos, a alegria de receber encomendas e notícias em pedaços de papel escondidos no pão. As amizades, as antipatias, os pequenos favores, em resumo, a sobrevivência.
A long review of this book by Hendrika H. Beaulieu, here
From the blog
Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois
David Koker was only 23 years old when he died on route to Dachau in early 1945---just one of almost 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But his legacy, published in English for the first time The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944, has lived on. The diary, published by Northwestern University Press, is nothing less than a remarkable and essential read. David Koker was interned, along with his mother, father and younger brother, in the Vught camp in February 1943. He began his diary soon after, and maintained it until February of the next year, when the diary was given to a civilian employee working at Vught, who smuggled it out to a friend of Koker. The diary is not only a well-detailed account of life in the Vught camp, but a testament to Koker's internal struggles as he (and those around him) attempted to come to terms with the growing horror of their situation. Koker was a budding poet and intellectual, and some of the verses he drafted while interned in Vught are included in his diary. Also quoted in the book are several surviving letters and notes that Koker wrote and received while in the camp--letters and notes were often hidden in parcels, such as in loaves of bread.
In his introduction to At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, Robert Jan van Pelt explains why the diary's existence is unique: "... the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust [by people who were] at home, or in a ghetto, or in hiding is substantial, the number of testimonies that were written in the inner circles of hell, in that German concentration camp, and that survived the war is small." The ability to write a diary under such circumstances would have been difficult enough, both emotionally and logistically, but David Koker managed not only to write—but to write a substantial and and highly observational diary, full of factual observations about life in the camp and an increasingly psychological probe into the “abyss” that surrounded them. Koker was able to obtain a relatively privileged position in the camp, which was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his diary and maintain a sense of ‘detachment’ from camp life.
At first glance, David Koker's diary is remarkably subdued and even subtle. Many
of his diary entries describe unreal circumstances with an almost nonchalant
attitude. One reason for this apparent “normalcy” in his diary could be that
Koker felt assimilated and yet detached from camp life early on. In March of
1943, less than a month after having been imprisoned at the camp, he wrote to
his girlfriend in hiding: "I immediately accept everything as normal. That's why
I don't experience things sufficiently. ... You must believe me: from the second
day on everything was quite normal: the German detachments, being together with
so many people, the strange food, taking care of the most essential daily
matters, etc. I didn't notice the passage from one kind of life to the other ...
even the strangest and most awful things become normal and agreeable." Koker, at
least, was self-aware of how imprisonment had changed him: "You become selfish,
even towards your own family ... Sometimes I treat the children with bitterness,
yet the friendliest treatment hides a bit of sadism and lust for power. ... A
kind of feeling of being in charge."
In several passages throughout his diary, Koker mentions Poland and in particular, Auschwitz—the inevitable destination that we, in hindsight, know meant certain death. However, many of the people in Vught (and other camps) were not aware of the ultimate fate of people sent to Poland—or “to the East”—until much later. In September of 1943, Koker wrote: “… good reports are coming in from Poland. It’s only too bad that people really are working in the coal mines. But the work isn’t all that heavy, many writer.” A footnote goes on to explain that a special project was created in which Jewish inmates were, prior to being murdered, forced to write postcards to relatives, which were then sent out at intervals to give the impression not only of life but of relatively good conditions in the camps. In November, Koker wrote again: “ … the administrator has spoken about Auschwitz, where the [Escotex branch] will go in its entirety. Stories … have a more or less sunny aspect. Jewish camp leadership. A lot of agriculture, the camp is largely self-supporting. … If you ask me, it sounds livable.”
But the reality of “the East” came crashing down only a few weeks later, November 27th, on Koker’s birthday: “The morning of my birthday: Spitz reads an excerpt from a letter from Poland. Three people … are living with Moves [expression meaning “they are dead.”]. And Moves’s business is working overtime. … Seldom have I seen anything set out so clearly in writing … Our optimistic messages from Poland are not incorrect. They have simply been incomplete. A probably relatively small group is working and doing reasonably well. And the rest: wiped out. The world has changed.”
Koker’s diary is, at times, a difficult read. The diary is essentially a raw, first draft—unlike many of the writers who penned diaries in hiding or wrote postwar memoirs, Koker did not have the chance to edit his diary for his intended reader (his girlfriend) or a broader audience. However, numerous citations and footnotes provide ample information about almost all of the people and events mentioned in the diary. But perhaps the raw nature of Koker’s diary is part of what makes it such an important read, in addition to the irreplaceable information about daily life in the Vught camp. We are reading, at its heart, the inner thoughts of a human being—imperfect, as we all are—whose life was cut short by events he could not control.
I highly recommended At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker, which was edited by Robert Jan van Plet and translated from Dutch by Michiel Horn and John Irons. It is one of the most important contemporary accounts of a concentration camp currently published, and one of the most insightful and raw accounts of a human being put into an impossible situation that I've personally read.
From Anna Amber, here. I thank her for the permission to reproduce it.
March 28, 2012
Life Inside the Camps
Dutch Jew David Koker’s extraordinary diary, a clear-eyed and sensitive account of life inside a concentration camp, is finally available in English
David Koker’s fate was in many ways no different from that of the nearly 6 million other Jews who died in the Holocaust. The eldest son of an Amsterdam jeweler, he was arrested by Dutch police in February 1943 and transported to Vught, a concentration camp built by the Nazis in the southern Netherlands. After being shuffled between other camps, he died on the way to Dachau in early 1945, where he was buried in a mass grave at the age of 23.
Before he died, however, Koker authored what may be the most extraordinary diary ever written inside a concentration camp. “In my opinion, it’s considerably more interesting than Anne Frank’s diary,” said Michiel Horn, a historian at Toronto’s York University and the book’s translator. At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944, was first published in Dutch in 1977 as Diary Written in Vught. Despite immediately being recognized as a classic in the Netherlands, it has never seen publication in English, until .
Part of what makes At the Edge of the Abyss so astonishing is that it survived at all. As the historian Robert Jan van Pelt writes in the book’s introduction, “While the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust by Jews while they were at home, or in a ghetto, or in hiding is substantial, the number of testimonies that were written in the inner circles of hell, in the German concentration camps, and that survived the war is small.” Those few that do exist are often fragmentary, and nearly all lack Koker’s extraordinary powers of observation and analysis.
Koker began his diary on Feb. 12, 1943, the day after he was arrested along with his parents and his younger brother. A published poet and budding intellectual at the time of his capture, he insisted on diarizing for nearly an entire year. As the teacher of the many children interned in Vught, he ingratiated himself with the chief camp clerk and his wife, which provided him with a relatively privileged position. In addition to keeping a diary, he was also able to write and receive letters, some of which are excerpted in the book.
In January of 1944, one of the civilian employees of a corporation that operated a workshop in Vught smuggled Koker’s diary out of the camp and gave it to his best friend, Karel van het Reve, who then gave it to David’s younger brother Max, who survived Auschwitz and received it upon his return to Amsterdam after the war. It was passed on to the , where an employee transcribed it.
Max was reluctant to publish the diary for fear of its impact on his mother, who also survived Auschwitz but never emotionally recovered from the death of her husband and son. Still, David’s former high-school teacher, Prof. Jacob Presser, saw its value and quoted from it extensively in his of the Holocaust in the Netherlands, published in 1965. Finally, Reve, who had become a famous Dutch intellectual by the mid-1960s, published the diary with just a few notes and an introduction.
Diary Written in Vught was instantly appraised as being of enormous value. “A single book can earn a writer a permanent place in literature, but to do that it has to be exceptional,” one critic wrote. “I do not think that, after reading the book, anyone will dispute that Diary Written in Vught fulfills that condition.” A popular Dutch public television show focused an episode on David, following Max, Karel, and others as they visited Vught, with readings from the diaries interspersed throughout. The book went through two printings within its first year of publication, appeared in magazine format for high-school students in 1985, and in an expanded edition with an epilogue by Max, in 1993. Determined to see an English translation of the book, Max approached a contact at the , who put him in touch with Jan van Pelt, who in turn approached Northwestern University Press.
Three things mark At the Edge of the Abyss as an utterly distinctive and unique work of Holocaust literature that must be read now that an English-language translation exists. First, the insider account of a camp; second, Koker’s literary and analytic abilities; and third, the only first-person report of an encounter between a Jew and Heinrich Himmler, head Nazi and overseer of all the camps. On Feb. 4, 1944, Koker records that on the previous day he had looked directly at the man responsible for the Final Solution. The haunting entry reads as follows:
A slight, insignificant-looking little man, with a rather good-humored face. High peaked cap, mustache, and small spectacles. I think: If you wanted to trace back all the misery and horror to just one person, it would have to be him. Around him a lot of fellows with weary faces. Very big, heavily dressed men, they swerve along whichever way he turns, like a swarm of flies, changing places among themselves (they don’t stand still for a moment) and moving like a single whole. It makes a fatally alarming impression. They look everywhere without finding anything to focus on.
What makes this passage remarkable is not just the fact of the encounter but Koker’s careful, emotionally attuned attention to detail. Koker notices not just Himmler but the deference of his supplicants. He observes with nonchalance, as if he were encountering not a genocidal murderer—and the person who keeps Koker in a concentration camp—but an ordinary man on the street. As Presser put it in his review, “We are aware of no other camp documents that sound so subdued: a superficial reading may suggest that Koker did not see the horrors surrounding him, with a more attentive reading one discovers them all right, even if they are hinted at rather than described.”
In addition, Koker provides a glimpse of life in the camps rarely seen before. He reveals aspects of ordinary life that take place beneath the surface of uniforms and barbed wire. Koker had a girlfriend, Nettie, a German-Jewish refugee, who had been living in hiding in Amsterdam since 1943. But he also met a girl in Vught, Hannelore (Hannie) Hess, with whom he had a relationship. “I have a sweetheart here in the camp, whom I find extraordinarily attractive physically,” he writes in one entry. She is “a girl of 18 with the appearance of a 23-year-old.” He confesses that he cannot stop thinking about her:
I have the strength to be very open with her, about “personal” matters and about everything that inspires my thoughts and feelings. And she always knows exactly the right moment to give me the stimulus to keep on speaking, by means of some pleasant words, a sweet anticipatory or assenting gesture, or a friendly question. … In love with her? It’s because of that unknown, almost uncomprehending something that exists between us. That newness, not yet habitual. And also the wonderment each time we reveal something of ourselves to each other.
These words seem like they could have been written by a young lover in postwar Amsterdam, not in a concentration camp. They reveal humanity’s insistence on maintaining whatever normalcy and intimacy is possible in the most abnormal and isolated of settings.
Somehow, Koker also finds beauty inside the physical landscape of the camp. From one poem dated May 17, 1943: “The evening air so pure and intimate/ A sky that’s hazed in whiteness by the sun/ and trees with foliage in great profusion/ with glittering flecks of silver from the sun.” He is also occasionally magnificently insightful. Jan. 6, 1944: “The goal is neither happiness nor unhappiness. It’s the unfolding of human potential. The development of that piece of the universe that you represent, as it were, even when it happens at the expense of what people call the self and their own welfare. Actually, it always happens at their expense. By feeling a lot we expand the world.”
If there are lovely moments of affection and poetic sentiment in At the Edge of the Abyss, however, it is very far from a Life Is Beautiful-style attempt to put a positive spin on the worst of human depravity. “Unlike Anne Frank’s diary or Etty Hillesum’s letters, David’s diary is not a source of optimism or spirituality,” as van Pelt puts it. “Instead he mercilessly probes the abyss that opens around him and within himself.” The results often make for brutal reading. Koker can be tender, but he is also ambitious and cold. He is, however, always self-aware enough to recognize these traits in himself. From a May 3, 1943 entry: “You become selfish, even towards your own family. … Sometimes I treat the children with bitterness, yet the friendliest treatment hides a bit of sadism and lust for power. … I don’t feel bad when I deny them something or give them an order. A kind of feeling of being in charge.” Nov. 7, 1943: “Sometimes when I see the mass of people here, a strange thought passes through my head: we don’t deserve it [i.e., liberation]. Not true, because who deserves to be in a camp, but as an image it’s instructive.”
If any hope can be gleaned from At the Edge of the Abyss, it may come from the realization that intellectual life and critical judgment can be maintained under the most horrific of conditions. That, and the fact that David Koker’s gifts did not perish in a concentration camp but lived on after him. But perhaps the temptation to find solace in something as tragic as Koker’s death and as cataclysmic as the Holocaust should be resisted. One cannot imagine the phenomenal author of At the Edge of the Abyss embracing easy answers.