Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

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 as At 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.

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