Under the onslaught of concentration camp despondency. Part 1/3

How to cite: Chylińska, M. Under the onslaught of concentration camp despondency. Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, T., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. February 2, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz/. Originally published as “Pod naporem beznadziejności w obozie.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1987: 174–186.


Mieczysława Chylińska, Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, camp no. 44658, Ravensbrück and Neustadt-Glewe survivor.

Part One

For some time now I have been troubled by the question why we, women prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau, were not able to put up a more overt form of resistance to the genocide which was being perpetrated in all of its variations. What made us behave that way? What were we waiting for? We all knew that we were in a Vernichtungslager, an extermination camp, so for all of us there was an inevitable destiny ahead.

I wasn’t fully satisfied with explanations saying it was due to the rampant terror in the camp. And I sensed that they weren’t enough for some of my younger friends who had heard or read it, but hadn’t experienced it themselves. But one day I was told that this was what I was like, still not fully able to understand why, for example, people in Block 11 or 25, the death blocks, let themselves be taken to the gas chamber instead of standing up together in a united front and putting up resistance. I felt that my interlocutors were silently wondering why we didn’t protest whenever we saw an SS-man abusing a victim, why we didn’t express our disapproval of his conduct, why we didn’t say how appalled we were whenever an Aufseherin (female guard) conducted a selection? I’m not sure my listeners would have been satisfied with the explanation that in the circumstances such a deed would have been an act of heroism speeding up your death, not a sort of antidote to the savagery we were watching.

The fact is, however, that the majority of women prisoners did not show any outward signs of opposition to the atrocities perpetrated in the camp. So we need to consider the reason for this. It certainly wasn’t indifference, not the depravity characteristic of a certain group of big shots in the camp. So what were the methods the camp applied to put such vast numbers of prisoners out of action?

There are many answers to this question, published in Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim (Medical Review – Auschwitz) and the abundant bibliography on concentration camps. So on the basis of what has appeared in the publications we could venture on a conclusion that the singular conditions in the camps turned inmates into a specific human type with a characteristic type of concentration camp behaviour. This self-evident truth still did not fill up the gap in my wondering. I was still being irked by the question why, why?

As I was reading over Antoni Kępiński’s paper on anxiety yet another time, I stopped at the chapter on hope. What caught my attention was a sentence saying, “Hope is a thing that is important for survival.” It prompted an interpretation of what hope could have meant under concentration camp conditions. Hope in the camp? Hope for what? Was it freedom that you wanted? Through the chimney you’ll go to the freedom you long for! The truth and the humour in such remarks, as the work of Zenon Jagoda, Stanisław Kłodziński, and Jan Masłowski informs us, made your impending fate more bearable. Your fate in the concentration camp, which had Arbeit macht frei (Work makes you free) hitting you between the eyes from over its gate.

Despite the blatant incompatibility of this motto with the undeniable tragedy staring out at me from the camp, I went into that place of ordeal full of hope that I would manage to survive its horrors and convinced it was my duty to survive. A few days later, when I was overwhelmed by despair, I was again told that I must persevere, this time by a friend, for personal reasons as well as for my country’s sake. And I have to admit that this imperative was more effective than any sort of consolation, which would have sounded funny to say the least.

Hope versus despondency

Although the duty to persevere, which most prisoners accepted, is not quite the same as hope, nonetheless the objective of perseverance makes it in a way similar to hope. I too realised that I had to persevere, that perseverance was the paramount response to the violence being done in the camp against mankind and all of our values.

I think it would be wrong to say that there was no hope at all of coming out of the camp alive. The evidence for this is provided not only by the cautious utterances people made, but also by the escapes, and to a certain extent by the revolt of the Sonderkommando prisoners, and the fact that some of the women in the big shot group of prisoners were collecting valuables. Nevertheless, the broad mass of ordinary women prisoners relegated hope in this sense of the word to the bottom of the list of wishes they did not admit to even to themselves. Talk of liberation and survival was not backed up by the hope that these wishes would be fulfilled. The conversations we had were about our lives prior to the concentration camp and on the realities in the camp, but generally not on what we would do with our lives on leaving the camp.

It is self-evident that hope means that you expect and are looking forward to something you want very much to come true, and that this state is attended by good and usually intense emotions. If you lose this state of expectation you lose hope and all that it involves. And if that happens, then your good emotions are replaced by bad ones, and your excitement turns into unhappiness, or even depression. And you say that you have been disappointed.

I think that here we need some remarks which seem fundamentally important for this discussion. Kępiński sees life itself as the biological attribute of hope. He goes on to observe that hope accommodates the future which the individual’s own constitution has programmed for him – a future which envisages three phases of activity: planning, implementing, and checking. When a human individual plans he opens up his own, hitherto unknown reality; when he implements his plans he is living in that reality; and when he goes on to the checking stage he has left that reality behind. His entry and existence in that reality, and his recurrent returns to his own inner self are accompanied by encounters with other people, and his activity is confronted with the activities of others, which transforms his activity and subjects it to a variety of deformations.

A human individual’s future, programmed “in accordance with his biological hope” (to put it in Kępiński’s words) is the substrate on which his activity in both the biological as well as the psychological sphere marks out the psychogram of the numerous variations and aspects of its developmental rhythm. That development may pertain to the self, or it may take a social orientation, or follow a highly altruistic trend. It may reach out for visions of the ideal, for instance as regards the way society is organised or people’s way of life. It may apply to activity in the behavioural sense, to satisfy the individual’s own needs, or the needs of others whilst still looking after one’s own needs, or it may focus chiefly on fulfilling the needs of others. It may entail values which are humanising, cultural, emotional and motivational, etc.

In general people entertain various hopes and wishes, which tend to be realistic only to a certain extent. Their hopes may persist for some time, or they may fluctuate and change, involving a whole gamut of emotional hues at diverse intensities, depending on how rich the individual’s personality is, on the demands put on him by people in his social milieu, and on the cultural model in which he lives.

Quite obviously, an individual needs to be active enough to survive and maintain himself, and to establish interpersonal relationships within the entire range of his operational and psychological faculties. If he cannot create these relations he will end up experiencing a vacuity, which in turn will lead to an escalation of catabolic processes. A person’s hope may be dashed – undermined or completely destroyed – by a debilitating disease, a somatic or mental illness. If the sick person is incapable of activity enabling him to conduct both simple and complicated manual operations, and if he cannot embark on the thought processes needed to resolve problems, then his ability to look forward to the future will be restricted to a greater or lesser extent.

A person needs imaginative freedom for his hope to thrive. So we may assume that the foundation of his hope will be secured if he is able to engage in positive activity, and especially to undertake mental activity at the required intensity and scope of intellectual momentum. Usually the more complex a biopsychological process, the greater the effort and intellectual proficiency and stamina required to effect it. The same is true of hope. For instance, a child of two cannot entertain a hope of composing a long poem, because of course it has not reached the stage of intellectual development required to write a creative work.

In general people want to achieve the aims they have set themselves, and to accomplish the duties they have taken upon themselves. They treat any desires which go beyond what they can actually achieve as pipe dreams. We say of people intent on accomplishing such aspirations that they want “pie in the sky.” But if they “reach for the stars,” as in the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra, and actually achieve their aim, then the reward for the effort they have made comes when they see their hope fulfilled. Their achievement comes with the joy of fulfilment proper to creative work. Wishes of this kind usually come once the individual’s most basic needs have been satisfied.

Life in a society makes the individual react both to his own needs as well as to those of his relatives and his community, and to the needs of communities and society as a whole. Mankind regards hopes which transcend the bounds of personal wishes as the worthiest aspirations. Of course, such aspirations cannot ignore the interests of the self, especially as regards biological survival.

Sometimes, in pathological conditions, the loss of hope may lead to suicide. A person who is disappointed on having failed to achieve his aim may decide to leave a world which has not met his expectations.

In general society disapproves of suicide. It is condoned only in matters of singular importance. Examples of such situations, including ones which occurred during the Second World War, are when something that has happened to someone in the past requires them to take their life. When a person’s hopes (and chances) of completing a secret mission vanished, when they were caught and there was a danger that their secret would be disclosed and other people’s lives put at risk – in such cases the person involved would decide on the ultimate, and often the only and inevitable way out. To save the hopes of others, they extinguished their own hope.

Despondency – the opposite of hope – is thus the state when a person’s activity based on positive emotions and future expectations dwindle away and disappear, bringing about a loss of their hopes of achieving their aim in life. A dwindling activity accompanied by predominantly negative emotions bring on depression, a withdrawal into the person’s inner self, giving up their hopes of a better future; and just like hope, it can relate to the self, the individual’s relatives, to his community, to society at large, or to various matters concerning individuals, people in general, or the world as a whole. A person whose mind is divested of all of its potential to look forward to the future is forced to stay in the present and the past, which is a serious curtailment of their potential for self-development.

We say of those who have fallen into bad ways that they have no future. Of course we mean no future in the positive sense. Many of them are comfortable without that positive sense. However, the antisocial type of hope is an aspect of studies on the social pathology of deviance.

The treacherously curbed, savagely violated natural rhythm of concentration camp prisoners’ lives, and the fully premeditated devastation of their positive activity not only diminished but also depraved that activity. Their arrest cut short the personal freedom they had enjoyed prior to imprisonment. Many of them did not have enough time to accomplish their plans, not to mention time to review their outcome in retrospect. The budding hopes of those who were still underage on arrest were suspended in the realm of non-fulfilment. The future that stood before them was trapped in the iron snare of the concentration camp in a frenzy of destruction, out to annihilate all that stood, or could stand, in the way of the Herrenvolk and its Lebensraum.

Kępiński and Kłodziński’s publication shows just how important positive activity was in the concentration camp. In such places, where atrocity flourished in a multitude of forms, activity could take either of two paths running in opposite directions. On the path of positive activity, its goal was to help others and save everything that was of value. On the path of negative activity the aim was to destroy. So we cannot discuss the role of activity in the concentration camp unless we make a distinction between its positive and negative type. The concentration camp acknowledged only the negative type, gearing it up to assist in its rampage of destruction. And since positive activity is one of the attributes of hope, the camp suppressed it as furiously as it could.

The valuable type of activity, entailing all the superior values, barricaded itself in. It was forced to withdraw from view and hide as deeply as it could (if not actually to give up) to prevent the concentration camp criminals from suspecting that it still existed. For which of us could defend herself against the blows that fell upon her again and again? So there were breakdowns, a welter of depressions manifested in various forms. Often the emotional nature of despondency was far more apparent than hope. The symptoms which betokened hope were a prisoner’s sadness, withdrawal, gestures of despair, and her tendency to recede into her inner self, far more deeply than what may be observed in normal circumstances.

In their paper Kępiński and Kłodziński write, “Upon entering the camp’s hell, one’s immediate, natural reaction was to try to save one’s life regardless of the cost. That was understandable, for life is the highest value for any sentient creature, not only a human.” Of course a prisoner could only do so for as long as she had the strength to put up resistance. And if it were not for the regenerative property of the nervous system, and the efforts made by prisoners to help each other keep up their power to resist, concentration camps would certainly have claimed far more victims than has been attributed to them.

“Away from” and “towards” it

Next we must consider the attitude a woman prisoner could take to the ways used in the camp to destroy the human being and everything she had to assist her. What was it like? When and in what kind of situations was it directed “away from” the reality, and when did its direction have to be “towards” it? And were there any regularities defining such behaviours?

The answers to these questions are not easy. Even under normal conditions you can assume a variety of attitudes to what is happening around you. Usually, however, people tend to approve of what is going on. Within the bounds of the socially accepted standards of behaviour you have a certain scope of freedom, a choice of how to react. Concentration camp prisoners were deprived of such rights. Everything that happened to them in the camp was imposed on them, none of the camp’s officials ever asked a prisoner for her opinion. And woe betide her should she refuse to carry out an order! Unlike the attitude of approval we adopt in normal conditions, a concentration camp inmate’s behaviour was always defensive. She had to defend herself against attacks that could come anywhere and at any time. Taking an “away from” attitude all the time meant that she always felt hounded, insecure, and apprehensive. Trying to find the right way to behave called for a “towards” attitude with respect to what was going on, which was very difficult to take up, and in many cases absolutely impossible. As a result there was a constant clash between “away from” and “towards” attitudes. A prisoner never really knew what was allowed and what wasn’t. She could be punished for an “away from” and for a “towards” attitude alike. All the time she had to adjust her behaviour to the evils of the camp, so as not to give grounds overtly for violence or oppressive measures against her, while at the same time inwardly disapproving of what was happening.

Today, after so many years have passed, I know very well that the reign of terror in the camp forced us first – to judge the changing situations as accurately as possible, secondly – to choose the best possible way of evading the dangers, thirdly – to make a socially-oriented will to survive our guiding principle, fourthly – to make ourselves unobtrusive to the SS guards and depraved functionaries, and fifthly – always to bear in mind that there was an infinite number of ways in which prisoners could be coerced individually or collectively. Of course, other survivors’ ideas on how prisoners could defend themselves might be slightly different, for I think we may assume that despite the general similarities there were certain differences between the attitudes inmates took to the ambient evil in the camp.

We have already known for a long time that the concentration camp’s measures of destruction were the inhuman living conditions, the hunger, humiliation, the gruelling toil, the Draconian punishments, the diseases, and the technology for killing. This list should have other points added to it, things which were not at all less dangerous. The response prisoners took up to all these threats might have been an exclusively “away from” attitude. But a closer examination of the problem calls for the scrutiny of the various ways individual prisoners responded to particular situations.

We know that the concentration camp set about destroying the individual as soon as he or she was thrust into it. There is probably nothing as dastardly in its deceitfulness as the notorious “welcome ceremony” which greeted every Zugang (new inmate) on his or her arrival in the camp. I looked, listened, stood aside, and did not understand much of what was going on. It was no different with other prisoners. I still find it hard to believe that such a circus-like “pageant” of cruelty could be practised on such a wide scale. Yet it was merely a prologue to what was coming. New arrivals were just as terrified of the mocking and humiliating ritual that awaited them in the sauna.

I took it all just as you would take the absurdities concocted by not fully sound minds. As if it was not reality but a hallucination conjured up by a sick imagination. Yet each and every SS-man and SS-woman assisting at this “ceremony” was clearly trying to make the whole show follow the full details of the ritual scripted by the concentration camp. I watched those uniformed representatives of the camp’s order with abhorrence but at the same time with a certain curiosity, sort of trying to scrutinise their nature, which was still human, after all. This singular rite shocked all ten of us in the group to such an extent that we were not capable of introducing ourselves to each other or striking up a conversation, and at any rate straight on leaving the sauna we were strictly prohibited from talking to one another. Our silence expressed the “away from” orientation, yet by obeying the order we were perceived as apparently adopting the “towards” attitude.

Finding myself in the Zugang block was another new, staggering surprise. I walked down what was supposed to be the corridor trying to avoid the muddy puddles, which amused a woman prisoner wearing a functionary’s armband. I looked round embarrassed for a stool or something when I was told to clamber up to the uppermost primitive doss. Later the time came for all the other dreadful things in this block. Today I can wonder how it was that with my “away from” reaction I still found enough strength to put up with all that this block entailed and all that happened in it.

By a lucky chance one of my friends found me in the nick of time, and I could rely on her for support. She taught me to take the camp and its phenomena with a certain dose of humour. Not only were they full of tragedy, but they were comic as well, the kind of comedy a sane, rational person would have seen in the absurdity of most of the situations. And I have to admit that this way of looking at the disgusting things that went on in the camp attenuated its tragedy somewhat. There was even a time when I would watch the most unlikely episodes, ludicrous transmogrifications, weird nonsense, strange, unreal situations, which to a certain extent muffled the daily tragedies. Naturally, only for a time. But then time in the camp was measured by a different benchmark, not the one for normal conditions.

The rising tide of bestiality put an end to this method of keeping yourself safe. Rampant hunger diminished everyone’s strength, especially of those women prisoners who got no help at all. Evidence of this was provided by the lines during roll-call in front of the blocks – day by day they got shorter and shorter. You could not bear looking at the Muselmänner drifting about on their last legs, or the kitchen refuse sites swarming with famished scavengers searching for anything to eat. With those who were going under you could still see the two vectors, “away from” the concentration camp misery “towards” coping. But the despondency which launched a largescale offensive in the “away from life” direction attacked even those who had so far managed not to crack up. All the signs were that there was nothing to look forward to. You don’t need any hope if you’re going to die – we would tell each other, if the words ever crossed our lips. Congested files of starving female inmates lumbered about with a mindless stare in their eyes, presumably no longer in search of anything at all. In the whole of Birkenau you could sense the “away from” vector – not only “away from” the camp, but also “away from” life.

Then something started to defy this tendency to reconcile ourselves to the fate they had planned for us. It was “organising” or “getting” things and barter. At first slowly but surely, step by step. It was no use trying to stop it with severe punishment and spectacular cruelty. “Away from” clashed with “towards,” no holds barred. The inmates’ ringleaders were crafty and stubborn. This was the only method which seemed available and effective for the vast majority, although there were a few heroic feats. A specific type of “Robin Hoodism” emerged. Prisoners exchanged food pilfered from the kitchen and other stores, as well as other commodities indispensable even in our distorted lifestyle, so efficiently and so deftly as if those participating in the business had done nothing else in their lives but “organise” things and trade them. I was so proud of myself when I managed to secure a bucketful of coal by the method practised in the camp. Practically the whole block admired me – me, a complete ignoramus in this line of business – for bringing myself to do something I didn’t approve of myself.

It was all done to let as many as possible women inmates stay alive in their groups for as long as possible, and by uniting in “organising things” to let them form a community at least a bit similar to a community living in freedom. We could notice that in the situations that emerged there was a gradual drop in the intensity of breakdowns full of despair and so often expressed in words like “I don’t need the world any more, it’s no longer of any use to me.” The hopelessness seemed to be shrivelling away in favour of a resolute wish to persevere and a clearly defined aim – to survive for the sake of the future, if not for your own, then for the future of your nearest and dearest, for those who were fighting in and beyond Poland for justice for all the nations in the world.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that from that time on Birkenau started to breathe a slightly gentler air. “Organising” and trading did not involve all the female prisoners, nor did it put a stop to the destruction done by hunger. Nonetheless, I think we should acknowledge that it made a meaningful contribution, despite the negative effects it also caused.

When the Third Reich stepped up its unrelenting efforts to exterminate all the Jews, the age of the smoking chimneys set in in Birkenau. Flames of fire flared from them day and night, side by side with the auroras over the death pits where the surfeit of bodies were burned. Our throats were choked by the asphyxiating stench of the dense, greyish-yellow smoke coming from the places where the fires were blazing, and not only lingering over the environs of the crematoria, but also drifting over the prisoners’ blocks. It was a horrific, palpable sign of the genocide, and a warning that we should not give our thoughts too free a rein to look forward to the future. Like others, I preferred not to see who was being consumed, who was perishing in its abysses. As if to spite what was going on before our very eyes, we consoled each other that the bodies which were being burned were no longer suffering, and we admitted the notion that perhaps their spirits were being swept away to join the Land of their loved ones. This way of looking at what was going on established itself as the most rational view to take, one which protected you from breaking down. However, none of us ever said she wanted to go up to paradise by way of the chimney. “Away from death towards life” was winning.

Today it would still be hard for me to say what was more destructive for our morale and made us crack up – human bodies being burned on such a massive scale right next to us, or the exhausting toil we were forced to do. But what I do know is that when I was forced to go out of the camp and work a long distance away from it, I preferred to dig ditches than to put up with the sight of the chimneys when I returned from work. By the time I was out digging in the field I had learned how to look after myself, and even though I was painfully punished for resorting to those methods of self-defence, I still found it easier to put up with the physical vexations than to witness the nerve-racking scenes that went on in the area of the ramp and the crematoria. The consequence for me of this biological and mental stress was a breakdown which assailed my “towards life” vector more and more viciously. I was worried of developing a mental illness, and the self-defence strategies I forced upon myself did not help at all.

Chance had it that just at that time we were moved to another part of the camp, further away from the places strewn with death factories. So I lifted up my head again, especially as I met some friends I had known from before my imprisonment, who did a lot to help me. Together it was easier once again to believe that a day would come when our ordeal in the camp would be over; it was easier to unite in a joint effort “towards” being human and “away from” the assaults against our humanity. Soon I was feeling better. What we had been through helped us manage better and find clever and more effective ways to avoid trouble. Our compulsory buckling down to the whims of the concentration camp criminals carried a huge charge of protest and condemnation, which we probably could not have held back for much longer. It’s quite likely that if conditions had relaxed just a little it would have erupted, regardless of the consequences. Deep down we felt the anger more and more keenly, more and more powerfully.

And it was this negative attitude to the oppressors guilty of the monstrous atrocities and the destruction that defined the human pattern of behaviour; while the general rule in the attitude women prisoners took with respect to each other manifested itself in our resolute efforts to save our lives and preserve our humanity.

End of Part One

Translated from original article: Chylińska, M. Pod naporem beznadziejności w obozie. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1987.

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