Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Civilisation no longer exists

Abel J Herzberg, a Dutch lawyer in Amsterdam, was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and, by January 1944, was incarcerated in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He survived there 15 months before release, and for the latter half of that time, he kept a detailed diary, which has been described as ‘unusually probing, sensitive, and eloquent’. This diary - Between Two Streams - A Diary from Bergen-Belsen - is being republished today in paperback form.

I B Tauris, a London-based publisher specialising in the Middle East and the Islamic World, first published Between Two Streams - A Diary from Bergen-Belsen, an English translation of Herzberg’s diary, in 1997. However, it was originally published in a Dutch journal nearly 50 years earlier in 1950; but parts are also included in Bergen-Belsen from 1943 to 1945, a book translated into English in the 1980s - see Abebooks.

Although Herzberg was sent to Bergen-Belsen in January 1944, his diary doesn’t begin until 14 August; and it finishes on 10 April 1945. According to I B Taurus, the diary chronicles ‘the horrific reality of daily existence in the camp’, and Herzberg only survived (rather than being gassed) in the camp because he was one of a small number of ‘privileged’ Jews who were held for possible use in exchanges with Allied-held German civilians. A website on Bergen-Belsen gives more details. It says that Herzberg was on a list of 272 Jews selected in April 1944 to go to Palestine, but that at the last minute, 50 names were crossed off the list and he was sent back to the camp.

Herzberg went on, after the war, to write many books on a wide variety of subjects, receiving numerous honours and prizes, including the Dutch prize for literature in 1974. After he died, in 1989, a translater called Jack Santcross produced an English edition of the diary, which was then published in hardback by I B Taurus in 1997. Santcross himself was a small part of Herzberg’s story, in that as a boy of only nine, he was transported on the same trains that took Herzberg both to and away from Bergen-Belsen!

The 1997 hardback publication of Between Two Streams was favourably reviewed. Kirkus, quoted by Amazon.com, said this: ‘An unusually probing, sensitive, and eloquent diary of incarceration at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. . . As a result of their unique status, these ‘special’ prisoners escaped the fate of others, who were worked to death or immediately killed. But life was not much easier: Seventy percent of the prisoners in Herzberg's section perished form malnutrition, disease, or torture. It is because Herzberg lived to see so much, and because of his passion for justice and his basic decency, that this book towers over many more gruesome death-camp memoirs.’

Dr S D Stein wrote a longer review for H-Net calling the diary ‘very powerful and illuminating’. He says Herzberg’s work possesses ‘a sense of immediacy’ that other diaries don’t, because ‘[he] writes about actions as they happen!’. Stein also notes that Herzberg, realising that the quality of his diary would suffer if he revised it after his liberation, refrained from making any alterations, ‘the reader, therefore, learns what goes on in the mind of a concentration camp prisoner as he endures his manifold hardships and as he witnesses atrocities inflicted upon other inmates’.

The Diary Junction has a biographical summary for Herzberg. It also has links to some extracts from his diary - here are a couple.

14 August 1944
‘Hut 13 is being punished. During roll-call, they had not stood orderly and still. Once again roll-call had lasted one and a half hours because someone miscounted in hut 28. Apparently hut 13 had got tired. Now they must stand in the cold, because it is chilly today . . .’
‘. . . Here civilisation no longer exists and consequently no sophistication either. As for eating, all I have to say is: there is hunger one side of our body, namely the inside, and fodder on the outside. Now the problem is: how to make the fodder reach the stomach. That is all. You have a fodder dish which is brown. It is a little impractical for a snout, else it could easily be used for pigs. You have a spoon, why? Because if you slurped from the your fodder dish you might make a mess, and that would be a pity.’

15 August 1944
‘The prisoners have erected the tent camp. Our men have carried straw. And last night and this morning a transport of women and children moved into these ten to twelve tents. Who are they? All this takes place right next to our camp section. We can see them. And nonetheless nobody knows anything - we are isolated from one another that strictly. All sorts of rumours are circulating, and most of them boil down to: fugitives from Poland and East Prussia. So we know at least one thing for certain: it is a sign of dissolution. And further: we are not going to get out of here anymore. We have to wait for the chaos. Will we one day have to swap places with these women and be housed in the tents? Those who love indulging in gloomy prophecies believe that. But it strengthens our power of resistance.’

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