Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Book Review: At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker


The cover for At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2012 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

David Koker was only 23 years old when he died on route to Dachau in early 1945. He was one of an estimated 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. A writer, a student, a son, a brother, a friend. The diary he kept while enduring one of the most unthinkable horrors in recent memory was published in English for the first time as At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944.

David Koker's diary is nothing less than a remarkable and essential read, a book that not only provides an unsettling and revealing grounds-eye view of the inner workings of a concentration camp but which provides readers with an unflinching reality: that of a silenced voice, diminished and subject to mental and physical brutality that impacted all who were imprisoned under it.

David Koker was interned, along with his mother, father and younger brother, in the Vught camp in February of 1943. He began his diary soon after, and maintained it until February of the next year, when he and his family were deported out of the camp and the diary was given to a civilian employee working at Vught. This civilian employee smuggled it out to a non-Jewish friend of Koker, who kept the pages safe during the war.

The diary is not only a well-detailed account of life in the Vught camp, but a testament to Koker's internal struggles as he (and those around him) attempted to come to terms with the horror of their situation. As people are sent on trains "to the East," as a camp which housed children deports them to unknown destinations, Koker and those around him are faced with new realities that they must contend with day by day.

In his introduction to At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, Robert Jan van Pelt explains why the diary's existence is unique: 

 "... the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust [by people who 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 that German concentration camp, and that survived the war is small." 

The ability to write a diary under such circumstances would have been difficult enough, both emotionally and logistically, but David Koker did more than that. He did not simply write: he wrote a substantial and highly observational diary, full of factual observations about life and prisoners in the camp; along with an insightful, often disturbing, psychological probe into the “abyss” that surrounded Koker and the other prisoners at Vught.

Koker was able to obtain a relatively privileged position in the camp, which was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his diary and perhaps, one of the reasons why Koker was able to maintain a greater sense of ‘detachment’ from camp life.

In some ways, David Koker's diary is remarkably subdued, particularly given the subject matter. Many of his diary entries describe unreal circumstances with an almost nonchalant attitude. Perhaps the apparent “normalcy” in his diary could be attributed to Koker's feelings of detached assimilation into camp life, a sort of psychological defense mechanism to being thrust into a wholly extraordinary situation.

In March of 1943, less than a month after having been imprisoned at the camp, he wrote to his girlfriend in hiding:  

"I immediately accept everything as normal. That's why I don't experience things sufficiently. ... You must believe me: from the second day on everything was quite normal: the German detachments, being together with so many people, the strange food, taking care of the most essential daily matters, etc. I didn't notice the passage from one kind of life to the other ... even the strangest and most awful things become normal and agreeable." 

Koker's position of privilege in the camp came with a psychological transformation. Koker was aware of how imprisonment had changed him and in one self-aware, somber passage, he wrote:

"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. ... A kind of feeling of being in charge."

In several passages throughout his diary, Koker mentions notable events in Poland; including the now-notorious name of Auschwitz—an ominous, blackened destination that is forever associated with pain, violence and mass genocide. 

Yet to Koker--at first--Auschwitz was merely a destination where many of those deported from Vught and other camps were headed. The real fate of those sent "to the East" was not wholly known and in the case of Vught, Koker and the other imprisoned people were led to believe that being deported was not something to be feared.

In September of 1943, Koker wrote: “… good reports are coming in from Poland. It’s only too bad that people really are working in the coal mines. But the work isn’t all that heavy, many write.” A footnote goes on to explain that a special project was created in which Jewish inmates were, prior to being murdered, forced to write postcards to relatives, which were then sent out at intervals to give the impression not only of life but of relatively good conditions in the camps. In November, Koker wrote again: “ … the administrator has spoken about Auschwitz, where the [Escotex branch] will go in its entirety. Stories … have a more or less sunny aspect. Jewish camp leadership. A lot of agriculture, the camp is largely self-supporting. … If you ask me, it sounds livable.

But the brutal reality of “the East” came crashing down only a few weeks later.

On  November 27th, David Koker’s birthday, Koker and his group learned the truth about what was going on outside the walls of their prison.

“The morning of my birthday: Spitz reads an excerpt from a letter from Poland. Three people … are living with Moves [note: expression meaning “they are dead.”]. And Moves’s business is working overtime. … Seldom have I seen anything set out so clearly in writing … Our optimistic messages from Poland are not incorrect. They have simply been incomplete. A probably relatively small group is working and doing reasonably well. And the rest: wiped out. The world has changed.”

Koker, who was transferred into a privileged group known as the "Philips-Jews," was deported to Asuchwitz in June of 1944; for a time, he and a select group were protected from routine death selections due to their status. However, in February 1945, Koker fell ill and died on a transport to Dachau. His father died of exhaustion in LangenBilau; his mother and brother, Max, both survived the war.

Readers may sometimes struggle with the flowing structure of Koker's diary, but it should be remembered that his diary is effectively raw. Unlike writers who penned diaries in total hiding or who survived the Holocaust and wrote their memoirs afterwards, Koker did not have the ability to edit his diary either for its intended readers (himself, along with his girlfriend) or for later public consumption. The editorial team does an excellent job with providing footnotes and source citations for the people, places and events mentioned in the diary, which does make it easier to understand the context of the information.

Yet the rawness of Koker's diary should not be taken as a flaw or even a criticism of his writing. It should be a reminder of what we are reading, what each word printed on the page represents. At its core, At the Edge of the Abyss is a compilation of the inner thoughts of a human being whose identity, whose freedom, whose life was cruelly destroyed and eliminated by Nazism. A human being who had hope of surviving the water,

I recommended At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker, edited by Robert Jan van Plet and translated from Dutch by Michiel Horn and John Irons, to any reader searching for contemporary Holocaust documents. It is one of the most important contemporary accounts of a concentration camp published in English within the last 2 decades.

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]

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