Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

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

Print Email
David Koker. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo courtesy Northwestern University Press)
Related Content

Dissolution

My life as an accidental Holocaust expert—and why I decided to quit

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.”

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.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
Nathaniel Wenger says:

Wengerocracy is a form of government where the people watch the ruler entirely amongst their reign. Wengerocracy prevents the leader of a country from covering up unlawful behavior going on.

Why aren’t holocaust survivors teaching the importance to instate wengerocracy in Germany? The holocaust happened. What are you waiting for before you teach the importance to instate wengerocracy in Germany?

What are you waiting for before you teach the importance to instate wengerocracy in Cambodia?

What are you waiting for before you teach the importance to instate wengerocracy in Sudan?

vincent says:

In life we need people like David, who suffer, but through it, prevail in spirit. Nice story.

Shoshana Kaye says:

It is so amazing that after so many years, we are still learning about these new accounts of this horrible time in history. I hope to be able to find this “new” account in my library. Thank you for informing me of this book. TABLET can always be counted on for informing us readers of new interesting people and their contributions to stimulate the readers. Thank you again.

There is a an entire literature about victims of Nazi concentration camps, but there is little about the mass persecutions that Stalin unleashed just before his death, after the process against his doctors accused in a fabricated plot that they were planing to poison him.

Stalin prepared plans with trains with 1,000,000 to to deported in Siberia in conditions where most of them will die during the journey. Fortunately he died in a a hospital unattended after a stroke (some claims Beria ordered to be poisoned by injection), in terrible agony. He suffocated while no medical personnel dared to touch him.

All this is related in a 56 minutes documentary The Reprise (Walking through Paris), in Russian with English Subtitles http://www.worldjewishtv.com/content/detail/927/

This complements David Koker book, with a universality of anti-antisemitism in another dictator, who meany believed was the savior and liberator of Jews from Nazi camps. Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin victims, like David Kroker, are shown one by one.

Gary Mandel says:

Life Is Beautiful is misunderstood as “an attempt to put a positive spin on the worst of human depravity.” It is how a father who wishes to protect his son against the knowledge of evil makes the boy see the horror, as the mother in Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” protects her son from knowledge of racism. The trick in the movie is to get us to see that noble effort against our knowledge of the evil reality.

Henry Barth says:

There is a minor problem in the article’s treatment of dates:

“In January 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.”

Then how does it record Himmler’s alleged visit in February 1944?

Matthew Fishbane says:

Thanks, Henry, for pointing out what was indeed a mistake. The papers were smuggled out in February, not January, of 1944, and the piece has been corrected to reflect that.

Malgorzata Mitrega says:

“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.””

I just wanted to point out that there are other documents/documentary narratives that describe the camp reality without a hue of emotion. Prof. Presser, please read “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowski, available in English.

Walter Plywaski says:

Not having read the book I’m at a loss for words, but the overall message that we remain merely human even at the edge of abyss comes as no surprise to me. Sadly enough I did not write a diary of my “Life & times” in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and Dachau. Even if I had written a diary it would not have survived all the horrors and travels between about nine versions of Nazi hell.

Fred Spiegel says:

I am a child survivor of three Concentration Camps. I was 11 years old when I was sent to Vught, together with my cousin Alfred, who later perished in Sobibor together with his parents, my Uncle Max (Moses)and Aunt Paula. I was born in Dinslaken Germany in 1932, but after the Kristallnacht my mother who was a widow sent me and my sister to the Netherlands to live with an Uncle and Aunt who had left Germany earlier.
The Netherlands was considered safe, a “neutral” Country but of course the Germans did not respect that. I lived together with my sister Edith, with our Uncle Max in Dinxperlo, by the German border. Actually the Uncle we had lived with, his name was Adolf, went into hiding on the day of the invasion of Holland, because he was considered “Enemy number One” by the Gestapo We then went to live with my Uncle Max, who did not want to go into hiding, even though his brother, my Uncle Adolf had prepared a place for him, his family and myself and my sister. In April 1943, we were departed to Vught, were we stayed about six week. It was a “TERRIBLE” place and I don’t know what we were supposed to do there, it was basically a “Slave Labor” Camp. After six weeks we were sent to Westerbork, the main Transit Camp in Holland. After being taken of a transport East, a few days later.that was just my cousin Alfred and myself. His parents (My Uncle and Aunt) were not on that transport and neither was my sister
My sister and myself stayed in Westerbork for eight months, most of the time in the Orphanage, because my Uncle Max, Aunt Paula and cousin Alfred were sent East after six weeks in Westerbork. East for them meant death, because the train went to Sobibor. Of course I did not know that until after the War. After they were deported, we were put into the Orphanage. Most of the children in the Orphanage were deported in November 1943, on a train to Auschwitz wre all were killed upon arrival,
with the Nurses and Teachers accompanying them.

Fred Spiegel says:

Anyway, we wewre latrer send from Westerbork to Bergen Belsen, the first transport from Westerboprk to Bergen Belsen
We arrived in January 1944. Things got progressivly worse, in the end very little food and many people starved to death or died of Typhus. On April 6 we were put on a train East, “Cattle Wagons” of course. We were lucky, in that after six days the train stopped, still on the “near” side of the Elbe. The Engineer disappeared so our train stayed there a few days, until we were liberated by Americans, who were on their way to Magdeburg. There is a web site called “A Train Near Magdeburg” which is about our train.
At the beginning of May we were sent back to Holland, were I was two months in a Hospital in Maastricht, recuperating.
Fred Spiegel

Maybe it’s nice to note that David Koker’s full original diary (all 305 pages) is online in the format of page images. It’s in the war diaries section of an archive website, GeheugenVanNederland. Direct link to the diary: http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/?/nl/items/EVDO01:MMNIOD01-244_1657

Even if you can’t read Dutch, it’s touching to see his actual scrawly handwriting and how, to make optimal use of the precious paper, he wrote the pages chock-full from top to bottom without leaving any margins.

Diego says:

Thanks for letting us having access to this story! What about a Spanish version? Could I help with that?

Horst_Kessler says:

Unfortunately, the link does not work. I can find a way to the website and search the archives, but still can not find the original document anywhere except the title. Suggestions?

Jesse Mazer says:

The link works for me. If it’s not just a matter of it having been down when you clicked it, perhaps your browser lacks the right plugins? You might try with a different browser…

Horst_Kessler says:

Thanks. Works now, just must have been down the first day I tried. Thanks!

emunadate says:

Wow, amazing he was able to keep a journal in the concentration camp. So much anti-semitism out there…http://emunadate.blogspot.com/2012/02/exhibition-jew-in-antisiemitic-art.html

herbcaen says:

Holland loves dead Jews, but has more of a problem with living ones

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

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

More on Tablet:

Jack’s Wife Freda’s Rosh Hashanah Specialty

By Stephanie Butnick — The NYC restaurant will be serving honey and red wine-braised short ribs