“What would you do to survive? You can’t really know until your life is actually in danger. It was very easy to die here. Survival took every ounce of strength you could muster.” Standing in the humid summer breeze at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I contemplated Eva Kor’s words.
It is easy to die. It is difficult to live. Life is fragile. We come from the dust and we return to the dust. Beginnings and endings are consistently marked by celebration, comedy, tragedy, and pathos. Middles are different. The middle of a thing is where the human spirit grows. Middles are built upon questions, conflicting purposes, desires for improvement and disappointment in stagnation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Evermore in the world is this marvelous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats.” Auschwitz was an epicenter in which middles and endings met. Survival was not a contest that only the fittest would win. It was a choice. Survival was a succession of choices that rang in the soul of each individual, like the sound of a train dragging its way through the countryside on tracks of steel. Survival was cultivating the mind to be like the birds that flew above the blood and mire and decay. Survival was found in one’s ability to climb above the grey ashes that filled the air over Birkenau or the choice to climb into a trough of human waste where failing human bodies continued their functions of life.
What would you do to survive?
In Birkenau, the prisoners were allowed two visits to the latrine per day—these visits occurred in the morning and in the evening. The beginning and the end of the day. In the middle, men, women and children had to relieve themselves on the earth that held their work. Through the work, through the struggle between hopelessness and the human will to feel the weight of life for one more day, the human body continued to huff through it’s own employment.
Powerlessness is an experience that splatters itself across the canvas of the human
soul. When respect is withheld from people, when their dignity is intruded upon and when their basic human rights are denied, two things are happening: one, the perpatrator is filling with the pride of his own control and two, the victims are deflating. Allowing men and women to soil their own ankles with the waste that whispers their continuing existence to both their own flesh and the dirt beneath their feet is an act of control; an evil that is one more chapter in the book of gaining dominance over an entire group of people. Instead of lifting their legs and urinating on the prisoners, the Nazi guards showed their dominance by keeping their own two feet on the ground.
I went into two latrines when I was at Birkenau. The first still stands in its original state, which is to say it has been sterilized but not renovated. The second is a replica that was built to match specifications of the original, which was set on fire during the end of the war. The second stands close to the iconic main entrance of Birkenau and this is the one to which I will refer here.
Being assigned to “shit-shift” in the latrine was a desirable position: desirable because the Nazi guards rarely entered the latrine. The absence of the guards was not felt anywhere in the camp like it was felt here. The absence of the enemy gave room to presence of mind and a crippled humanity that still existed within the prisoners. It was in the latrine that they could openly converse with one another, where they could make plans to “organize” (steal), where they could ask questions, have sex and breathe in a small remembrance of autonomy.
Autonomy. Freedom. These words are relative: the fresh air of the soul known as freedom had to find its breath amidst human waste, flies, gnats, un-showered men and women combining their body odor and fluids meant to create life. Autonomy could only be found embedded within this coffin of human dignity.
The shit-shifters’ job was to lift a heavy, concrete slab at one end of a long row of make- shift toilets, thus giving space to lower themselves into the pool below the concrete
holes. Wading through excrement that leaked weakly from men and women who may have already been dead was a desirable job. The cesspool was quiet. Private. Free from the
enemy. But, like a dog that slowly goes blind, it was the small shards of light still entering their souls that gave them a frame of reference as to what it meant to be alive. In this way, the privacy, the ability to speak to other men and women, to remember one’s own voice . . . these were lifelines to those who worked in the latrines. Swimming in human waste was in and of itself a life preserver.
Eva would say that when the dignity of a human being is pierced, the speed with which she deflates is dependent on the strength of her will to live. She asked us several times while we were in Auschwitz, “How many of you could survive here? What would you do to survive?” Of course, there is no way to know until we are put into the position to fight for our lives.
Consider if you will, a woman falling from the sky through the surface of the ocean and into the water’s center. She is surrounded by foreign creatures, cold; disoriented by the sounds, the weight, and the stillness of her lungs as she feels bubbles of air rushing against her hands, neck and face. Inside this world she is cradled by water and choked by her inability to adapt. She is not a fish, she has no gills. The water means her death. Inside this moment she has a choice. She can feel the weight of her predicament, panic and fall into the darkness below. Or, she can swim. She can lift her head toward the surface, which she perceives by the light shining above the rippling crests, and kick her legs, lift her hands above her head and swiftly down toward her sides. She can decide that she will continue moving upward until she can no longer move at all. She can set her sight on the goal of air, sky and a world she understands, one to which her body has been designed for survival. She can work with the buoyancy of the currents and she can stare into the fuzzy image of the sun, forsaking temptations to look to the left or right for possible obstacles to her desperate climb.
This woman wants to survive. Her will is to live. She has to face the facts of her surroundings, make a choice, and move.
10-year-old Eva was dropped into the ocean and she survived. The strength she gained from brokenness, the vision she gained from darkness and the love she has for peace now serve to lift others up.
Since Eva began sharing her decision to forgive she has gotten thousands of emails from victims of childhood sexual abuse. These men, women and children are a cross section of humanity. One example of a sect of our modern day society who understand what it is to consider “working in the latrines” a desirable job. It promises to give the worker space away from their enemy. Freedom. Autonomy. These are relative terms.
—copyright Jill Szoo Wilson
Photo Credit: Charles Moman