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 now.
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 February 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 Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 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 history 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 Anne Frank House, 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.”
Once an institutionalized mental patient, the comic Moshe Kasher unleashes his psychological self-abuse in the new memoir Kasher in the Rye