A Concentration Camp Diary

            June 2012    
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Book Review

By Jay Levinson

At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944
by David Koke and edited by Robert Jan van Pelt
Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern
University Press (2012)
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2636-7

This year before Passover a prominent Bnei Braq rabbi, Shmuel Markovitz authored a booklet in which he describes at length how we must envision Egypt as though we, too, were slaves there. He writes, for example, "We were at the depths of denigration, totally despairing of life." Work was the order of the day in a pointless existence which knew no other reason than toil. Maror, or bitter herbs, is the symbol of this feeling, but even as we taste romaine lettuce or horseradish at the seder it is hard for us to internalize the depravations of slavery as we sit in the opulence and comfort of our homes.

The diary of David Koker was written in the Vught concentration camp in the Netherlands, and it goes a long way in describing the inner thoughts of a prisoner who was robbed of his human identity. It is not the Diary of Anne Frank, composed then edited in relative tranquility while hiding. This diary contains the scrambled thoughts, hasty notations, and inner feelings of a man who was placed in a "reception camp." He then slowly understood the nuance of a name change. Vught became of a "transit camp" on the way to liquidation.

The Nazis understood psychology very well. They instructed prisoners in Auschwitz to write encouraging post cards, but even so word got out. Auschwitz was a place of "Moves" (death). It was not really just work in the East.

As months passed Koker's possessions were confiscated, his hair was shaven, and he was compelled to wear the striped uniform of an inmate. His identity as an individual was taken away.

This book is not easy to read. It is depressing. It contains jumbled thoughts. But, it gives a true picture of the life of a slave to a cruel master. It is "must" reading for anyone who wants to understand the Nazi period.

Koker experienced fleeting moments of joy, as packages from Amsterdam would arrive, or as he would catch a glimpse of his parents, sometimes exchanging a few words with them. The packages were eventually stopped, and as deportations to death camps increased, he fought to keep names off the list. Oddly enough, he developed affection for a female prisoner, but even that natural instinct was extinguished.

Rumors were rife as real news was withheld. Was the Eastern Front really collapsing? Was the war about to end with a German victory, or were the Allies about to invade? Sometimes there was hope, but usually there was only despair.

Koker was part of a skilled unit making communications equipment, so for more than a year his life was spared. In the Spring 1943 the Germans feared that the Allied invasion might come through the Netherlands, so Vught was evacuated. Koker perished on his way to Dachau. The days leading up to his deportation are clouded in mystery, since the last part of the diary has been lost. Did Koker pass away on the death train? Or awaiting reception at Dachau? We shall never know. The secret is buried in the mass grave where Koker was interned with the remains of more than 7600 others.

As we read this book it is not enough to decry the cruelty of the Nazis --- those who were rabid anti-Semites and those whom Koker describes as "only following orders." World War II is a period that is close to us, and most of us have heard first-hand accounts from survivors. The stains of history are still relatively fresh. This book, however, can serve yet another purpose. It can give us good insight into the sufferings of the Jews in Egypt and help us empathize with the reality of their slavery and their longing for redemption. In that way we can uphold the challenge of understanding the Biblical slavery from which we, too, were redeemed.


from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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