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
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.
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