Every so often I scan the literary landscape and look for writers who tell a little about the art and the heart of being human. We have our cynics and pundits, our humorists, and other talented entertainers who draw us into their opinions and stories; but what I crave every so often is to feel: the good, the awful, the everything, so that I can look inside to get a glimpse of what I -what “we” - are really about, and what we’re capable of. The search for soul on those terms takes guts I don’t always have, but decades ago I found an able example of that kind of courage in Terrence Des Pres.
But first, a little back story.
Throughout the mid- to late nineties, I volunteered with the Holocaust Memorial Foundation in Illinois, mainly working on projects with survivors.
“You have no idea what we needed to do to survive,” one of them, Ruth, said suddenly to me as we drove one afternoon from the Foundation to a school where she was going to speak to her granddaughter’s history class. “I can’t really ever tell the truth about it all. It’s too hard.”
Ruth became unusually agitated and started to cry. I’d always known her as quiet and apparently very shy, and the thought occurred to me that maybe she was in some kind of health crisis, so I pulled over. That wasn’t the case, though. For perhaps twenty minutes on the side of that road, with drizzle turning to rain on the windows and with a cop eventually peering in to see if we were okay (what do you say?) – Ruth shared “unspeakable things.” It poured out of her as if I weren’t there, which was a relief, because as I said, what do you say? Ruth composed herself shortly after the kind officer pulled away and we drove on so she could tell a milder version of her story to her granddaughter’s class at school.
What I heard as a private matter between us that afternoon will stay with me the rest of my life.
One of the most moving and complete accounts of survival in the camps for the general public was written by the late Terrence Des Pres. His book, The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, is considered to be one of the most important books of its kind. Des Pres was a poet, writer and professor of English at Colgate. Like me, he wasn’t Jewish, but he was a passionately involved student of the post-Holocaust world. I’ll sum up the late author’s mission with words taken from one of his own essays: “To be on the side of the victim is to be on the side of life, which is what morality in practice comes down to.” Terrence Des Pres embodied that ethos.
When Americans think of the Holocaust, we tend to think of Auschwitz, as though the atrocities of the time were mostly geographically contained to a single massive and terrifying place. Auschwitz, though arguably the most famous today, was actually but one of several killing centers (a link below provides detail on them all).
There were thousands of holding and work gulags spread across the face of Europe. In their distinctive way, each was a death camp albeit without the formal “kill center” designation.
The best words to describe the importance of The Survivor to each of us comes by way of a reviewer of his work, Helen Harrison, who noted that Des Pres’ book “still resonates in my memory as the most acute, most gripping, most honest and above all most honorable account of why human beings survived the Holocaust and the Gulags. It is my belief that (Terrence Des Pres), who was an English professor, not a historian, did more to change what I have always thought were negative, hurtful and incorrect ideas…of what constitutes a survivor. He also makes it clear that all the survivors did not survive. An immense accomplishment.”
So beautifully said.
It's a vast accomplishment to help a general public learn about what resides within each of us that enables us to go on, to defy the devastating circumstances of our lives; in this case, even that which is beyond imaginable. That’s what makes the book so notable.
Ask anyone today if they feel a reason to be down or depressed, and from quite a few people we’ll likely hear a litany of good to excellent reasons. Given that, what’s the value of dwelling in such a sobering topic as The Survivor presents?
The answer to that is embedded in my experience with Ruth, and in The Survivor’s text, where Des Pres relates these words as expressed by one who survived:
“I have told you these stories not to harrow you, but to strengthen you. Now you can decide if you are justified in despairing.”
I've had a life of ups and downs as anyone has, but I have always enjoyed the relative luxury of personal freedom. I’ve known excruciating pain but nothing near what’s been endured by others. To admit this is not to deny my own, or anyone else’s painful experiences, because you just can’t grade agony. It exists within the experience of he or she who has been afflicted, and in every case, such anguish is a deeply personal, isolating and holy thing.
But thanks to survivors, I have a far more informed basis upon which to decide if I am ever really justified in despairing. That’s the gift of the survivors. They really force the question.
Maybe we can get through this life all right and relatively balanced if we can be like Ruth, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and focus some of our attention sincerely on interests other than our own. She loved doing things for her granddaughter. Ruth felt the girl represented the reason for her own survival.
Today, every time I hear of a new baby coming, I am reminded of a quote attributed to the French poet St. John Perse: “There’s a world to be born under your feet.” Indeed there is. I can only hope that there’s a core group of people able and willing to help children understand how to bring about a world in which we can all live peaceably among ourselves, especially now that so many survivors like Ruth have passed on to whatever is next.
Ruth, the woman to whom I referred earlier, had been a seamstress at the Riga Ghetto in Latvia. If you go to this link and seek the heading “Mass Killings,” you will get a hint of what caused the agonized silence that burdened Ruth for much of her life: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riga_Ghetto
The Des Pres Book: https://www.amazon.com/Survivor-Anatomy-Life-Death-Camps/dp/0195027035
The place has grown since I volunteered: https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/pages/exhibitions/13.php
Killing Centers: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005145