Homo homini lupus est

How to cite: Kępiński, A. Homo homini lupus est. Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, T., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. September 10, 2019. https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz. Originally published as “Homo homini lupus est.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1971: 165–167.


Antoni Kępiński, MD, PhD, 1918–1972, Professor of Psychiatry, Head of Chair of Psychiatry, Academy of Medicine in Kraków. Former prisoner in the Miranda de Ebro concentration camp (Spain). Wikipedia article in English

Review of Paul Chodoff, “Homo homini lupus est,” Archives of General Psychiatry. 1970, 1: 78–87.

“Man is a wolf to man,” the well-known proverb from Plautus’ comedy Asinaria, is the motto at the top of Paul Chodoff’s recently published article “The German concentration camp as a psychological stress,” which describes the psychological and medical aspects of the German concentration camps. Dr. Chodoff of Washington D.C., is one of the psychiatrists (alongside Viktor E. Frankl, Elie Aron Cohen, and Bruno Bettelheim) conducting research on the German concentration camps and the stress syndrome associated with them. This American psychiatrist has published several papers on the subject already. In the article I am reviewing, he gives a general summary of post-concentration camp disorder and presents his own view of how inmates adapted psychologically to life in the concentration camp, and how survivors adjusted to the aftereffects of their period of imprisonment in a concentration camp.

Chodoff’s point of departure in this article are the recollections of a sick Jewish woman who was an Auschwitz prisoner. Life in Auschwitz-Birkenau has already been described fairly extensively in many accounts and in the scientific literature; however, the story related by this prisoner, her experiences and impressions, make up the framework for Chodoff’s observations, so I shall quote a selection of relevant passages from her account.

Anyway, we got up at two o’clock in the morning. We were awakened by the girls who brought the coffee in big barrels. It was black and it had charcoal in it and maybe chicory. It was rather lukewarm and they [the SS-men] thought it was enough to hold us through the day. And no one wanted the coffee. You would rather have an hour of sleep or so, but you had to have it. The barracks had to be emptied, and we had to get back and line up for the appel—roll call—and that was my job, getting people up. . . . I was assigned to wake-up approximately . . . 150 to 200 people who did not want to face the day’s reality. I mean, because we knew what was coming. So I was up, pulling blankets off of people—“get up,” screaming, carrying on, even hitting. Once I hit someone and she looked at me and it was one of my mother’s friends. I apologized. I felt terribly bad. I kept on doing it. I got them up. I think the whole process took nearly half an hour to make 1,500 people get out of the block. We were up but there was no question of dressing because we got one dress when we entered Auschwitz and I got a very, very long petticoat. It came all the way down to my ankles. It came in very handy because I was able to use it little by little as toilet tissue which was nonexistent . . .

But somehow, I don’t know how the rumor started, but someone gave the word that they were going to pick so many people to be cremated—that the first four or five rows are going to be taken to be cremated. Well, I tried to get anyone to get in the first five rows. It was impossible. I had to make them do it. I was shoving and pushing. But we were lined up about two-thirty in the morning and the Germans did not come out till five or six o’clock. . . . They always miscounted because, after the first counting was over we were being punished for someone [who] was missing. We had to get down on our knees with our hands up. . . . But meantime, we didn’t have the big selections as when Dr. Mengele came around. Just the little officers did their jobs and decided a girl with a pimple on her face, someone who was a little more run down than should be, or someone with a little bandage were selected. Naturally those people were taken out automatically to the crematorium. So we had to be very careful that you shouldn’t have any scars showing or you should look fresh and not unwell. Well, by 11 or 12 we were allowed to come into our bunks and then lunchtime came. . . .

Then came the evening roll call. That started about two o’clock in the afternoon and then again the same circus—lining up, waiting, miscounting and counting, and counting, and counting, and it was seven to eight o’clock in the evening before . . . we were allowed to come in—sometimes nine-thirty or ten o’clock. . . .

I think they [the SS] were very worried about our physical well-being and cleanliness, so we had to be shaved. . . . several times while I stayed in Auschwitz, we were shaved of hair—head, under arms, and intimate parts of our body by Jewish inmates—standing. We were standing on a stool so that the Jewish inmates would be able to reach us easier and we were surrounded by SS men who seemed to enjoy it very much. Well, it didn’t bother me either. I had no feelings whatsoever. I couldn’t care less at this point of the game. It really didn’t matter.

As I said, we had selections every single day—some just slight—just picking people out as I mentioned before because of scars, because of pimples, because of being run down, because of looking tired or because of having a crooked smile, or because someone just didn’t like you. But then they were beginning to liquidate Auschwitz and we had major selections where you were selected either to go to work or to the crematorium and in this case Dr. Mengele was involved in it. He was quite an imposing figure and his presence—I don’t think everybody was scared because, rather I wasn’t. I was hypnotized by his looks, by his actions.

The barracks had two massive doors and we were inside. They did not let us out. It was in October and it was rainy and we were holding pots of water—we didn’t sleep because of the rain because we had to keep ourselves dry . . . and then the doors swing open quite dramatically . . . great entrance with Mengele in the center accompanied by two SS women and a couple of soldiers . . . he stands with his whip on one side and his legs apart. It’s unbelievable. It looked like Otto Preminger arranged the theme for the whole thing. It seems to me now that it was like a movie.

Anyway the Capo came out and she gave us orders to undress and line up in front of the barracks. It had two rooms. One was a storage room and one was the Capo’s room—and Mengele stood in between and he had one leg lifted on a stool, his right leg, and he was leaning on his knee and he had a switch in the same hand and while we were lining up I was able to observe what he was doing. Till I had to face him I really had no feelings. I couldn’t describe how I felt but I saw the switch go. It was a horsewhip—left, right, and I noticed that those who were motioned left were in a better condition, physical condition, than the ones who were motioned to go right. . . .

Anyway, my turn came. I had a choice to make. Not only Mengele had a choice to make, I had. I had to make up my mind. Am I goingto follow my mother or is this it? Am I going to separate from her? . . . I will go ahead in front of my mother—that was unusual, she being my mother, out of courtesy. I followed her all the time in any other circumstances. . . . I think my heart was beating quite fast, not because I was afraid—I knew I would come through, but because I was doing . . . something terribly wrong. Anyway, I passed Mengele. I didn’t see him. I just passed and I was sent into the room where I would be kept alive and I turned around and my mother was with me, so this was a very happy ending.

Chodoff makes this concentration camp memoir the basis of his scientific observations and asks similar questions to the ones Polish researchers have explored on how people managed to survive the hell of the concentration camp. In his opinion a regular chronology of inmates’ reactions to life in the concentration camp may be determined on the basis of survivors’ accounts. The first reaction on arrival was shock and horror. This anxiety reaction was usually followed by a condition of apathy and depression which lasted for a variable period of time. This state of apathy entailed a defensive psychological reaction, it was a kind of affective hibernation. However, in some inmates it could lead to the Muselmann condition. Prisoners who managed to continue fighting for their lives developed a set of adaptive mechanisms characteristic of long-term periods of adaptation. Nearly all of them developed a regressive type of behaviour. The infantilization was the effect of the need to suppress any aggressive impulses they may have had and had a defensive function. As a result of this type of regressive behaviour, Chodoff says, many prisoners behaved just like children and became completely dependent on their savage masters. Their attitude to the SS-men was ambivalent rather than hostile. Many prisoners applied a mechanism which could be described as identification with the aggressor: they imitated the behaviour of the SS-men and adopted their system of values. In their eyes, and in their situation, the SS-men were always tall, handsome, and looked like gods. This is what Dr. Mengele is like in the recollections of Chodoff’s patient.

One of the key defence mechanisms was the suppression and isolation of the emotions. For example, for Chodoff’s patient this meant not seeing the dead bodies she was walking on, and not believing that the smoke from the crematoria came from the incineration of the bodies of her nearest and dearest. It was a kind of affective anaesthesia, protecting her against the dangers excessive hostility might have brought. This type of anaesthesia allowed inmates like Frankl, Cohen, and Bettelheim to view life in the concentration camp from a self-distanced perspective.

In Chodoff’s opinion, concentration camp prisoners developed a specific type of bond with other inmates, since individuals who cut themselves off completely from fellow-inmates could not have survived, but this bond was limited to a considerable extent by the individual’s will to survive. The only exceptions to this rule were certain political or religious groups.

Prisoners unloaded their aggression in dreams of revenge or in quarrelsome and irascible behaviour with respect to other inmates.

The emergence of psychological or mental disorders of any kind, regardless of their intensity, meant certain death for the prisoner concerned. In this situation an interesting adaptive mechanism could be observed, whereby prisoners generally did not develop new psychosomatic or psychoneurotic conditions, and any which they had suffered from prior to their imprisonment in the camp usually attenuated or even vanished completely.

Chodoff continues with the observation that on their release from the camp survivors experienced new types of psychological stress. Many found that their nearest and dearest had died in a concentration camp and that their house had been destroyed. The daydreams they had in the camp faded away. Many survivors subsequently spent years in a displaced persons’ camp, where their neurotic conditions continued and became entrenched.

In general their long-term negative personality changes took one of two paths. Some survivors became introverted, helpless and apathetic, keeping themselves to themselves. Many of them became passive and subsequently apathetic, dependent on others, wanting to be looked after and to be left in peace by the world around them, in which they had lost interest. Others treated the people around them with suspicion, hostility, and distrust. Their attitude to other people oscillated between placid, resentful bitterness to cynicism and cantankerous pugnacity.

Yet the most characteristic aftereffect of incarceration in a concentration camp is what Chodoff calls the concentration camp syndrome. It is characterised by anxiety, irritability, unease, fearfulness, and panic reactions to ordinary stimuli such as a telephone ringing or a knock on the door. The symptoms of anxiety intensify during the night and are accompanied by nightmares and insomnia. These persistent nightmares and thoughts are a repetition of what survivors experienced in the camp. Their psychosomatic diseases and disorders affect virtually all the organs of their body. The most common physical symptoms are fatigue, weakness, and disorders of the digestive system. One of the common symptoms is rumination on their experiences in the camp and an idealized picture of their life prior to their imprisonment in the camp. Talking to these people makes you feel as if you had been transported to the concentration camp, so vivid and detailed are their accounts. You may get the impression that their lives stopped at the concentration camp stage and nothing of any significance has happened in their lives since their liberation. The feeling that life stopped at the concentration camp stage makes many survivors still feel young. Some survivors suffer from depression caused by self-blame for having survived. Fairly similar symptoms have been observed in survivors of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, who have also experienced existential guilt.

In Chodoff’s opinion, organic changes play a secondary role in the emergence of concentration camp syndrome. Moreover, what determines this syndrome are not only survivors’ extremely strong emotional and physical stress experienced in the camp, but also the traumas they have been through since liberation.

He is quite right that the usual language of psychopathology is not good enough to describe the experiences of these people. He concludes the article with the legend of the 36 righteous men who took all the suffering in the world upon themselves. Chodoff writes that all concentration camp survivors are like the 36 righteous men.

It has to be said that many of Chodoff’s observations coincide with the findings of Polish authors, especially Roman Leśniak, Maria Orwid, Wanda Półtawska, Adam Szymusik, and Aleksander Teutsch. These researchers have examined concentration camp survivors, chiefly of Auschwitz-Birkenau, focusing on topics like prisoners’ adaptation to life in the Nazi German concentration camps, post-concentration camp personality changes, and other psychiatric, psychological, and sociological aspects of the subject. Their work is familiar to readers of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, and their first research results were published over 11 years ago. However, research of this type conducted by Polish scholars is virtually unknown abroad owing to the language barrier and hence has hardly been circulated at all. So it is hardly surprising that Chodoff’s article makes no mention at all of this prolific and advanced work by Polish scientists. Whenever I read foreign journals, alongside new points I invariably come across observations which are no novelty to Polish researchers, who have been familiar with such phenomena for years.

Regardless of the double-track nature of the research, there are also some differences due to the specificity of the subjects examined by Chodoff in different countries. The survivors he has seen were in a different situation from those examined by Polish medical scientists. For those represented by the survivor whose memoirs he quotes at length, the only way out of the concentration camp was via the crematorium chimney; hence the resulting psychological picture is even more tragic, and it is much rarer for this category of survivor to recall any brighter moments, such as the ones that occurred in the concentration camp life of non-Jewish prisoners. For the non-Jewish inmates the experience was somewhat more “bearable,” not just hell all the time, but with intermezzos of “paradise”—friendship, cordiality, and assistance. So it is no wonder that the motto Chodoff has chosen reflects the tragic and despondent nature of the concentration camps.

Translated from original article: Antoni Kępiński, Homo homini lupus est. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1971.

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