Perpetrators Victims Bystanders
In sheer physical terms, the veterans of camps, hideouts, and partisan units had two attributes. They were relatively young, concentrated in the age group from the teens to the thirties, and that is to say that those who were middle-aged were even fewer. They also had to be in good health at the start of the ordeal. Ghettos, let alone camps, marshes, and woods, were all prescriptions for illness, and anyone who was already burdened with a malady or disability usually had an insurmountable problem.
Social characteristics, although not as determinative as one's physical condition, were also important. The same advantages that favored people in ghettos, hiding or escape, also furthered ultimate survival. 'We were scraping the bottom of our dwindling resources,' states a survivor who was still in hiding in a Polish town during 1944. He did not have to add that he had some resources to begin with. The Jewish physicians and carpenters were similarly able to prolong their existence, if not in freedom, then in a ghetto, and if not in a ghetto, then in a camp.
Most critical, however, was the psychological profile of the survivors. In this respect, they differed completely from the great mass of their fellow victims. The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding on to life.
It was not common in the Jewish community to be realistic to the extent of observing one's environment soberly and drawing ones conclusions independently. It was not usual to be suspicious of explanations or assurances that demanded absolute trust in authority. Rudolf Vrba, who had already escaped from an internment camp in Slovakia and had been caught at the border of Hungary, was on a deportation train with Jewish families who had been promised 'resettlement.' When the train halted at Maydanek-Lublin, where he was pulled off with men aged sixteen to forty-five, he decided that from this moment, he would 'trust nobody.' The realistic person did not rationalize steps into the unknown as benign. During a roundup in the Kaunas Ghetto in 1944, a woman, Liuba Daniel 'forbade' her husband to report. He did anyway and died. She survived.
Presence of mind, coupled with the ability to make decisions instantly, was another rare characteristic. One woman, Mitzi Abeles, repeatedly escaped from pursuers who were within yards of her, at one point jumping in a nightshirt from a window in Zagreb, Croatia. Errikos Sevillias, the Greek Jew in Auschwitz who ascribed his survival to incomprehensible fate, recalls a barracks selection in which he gave himself a poor chance of survival, because he had become emaciated. 'In the instant,' he writes, that 'I saw the guard look elsewhere, I jumped and landed on the other side of the barrier,' where the strong had already been separated from the weak. The decision makers always took risks. Not always were their actions prompted by the appearance of a danger; sometimes they responded to an opportunity. When the teenager Isaac Rudnicki in the Swienciany Ghetto was assigned to work in a German weapons room, he removed two firearms and hid them in the ghetto. His family was petrified. He eventually became a partisan and after his liberation fought in Israel's wars, rising in rank to Brigadier General with a new name: Yitzhak Arad.
The third component of the survivor's personality pattern was an absolute determination to live. One aspect of this tenacity was adaptability to the infliction of indignity, pain, cold, heat, and hunger. When Rudolf Vrba was transferred from Lublin to Auschwitz, he met two Poles, both of whom suggested laughingly that he should run for the wire—the guard would shoot and end things quickly, Vrba, angry, answered: 'I'll be alive when you two are dead!' They died in fact a month later of typhus. Vrba, resolute, ate everything, 'even if the bread contained sawdust, and the tea looked like sewer water.' Sevillias, much older than Vrba, was already over forty. His stamina was nevertheless exceptional. When the Soviet army liberated him, he weighed thirty-two kilograms, or seventy pounds. But he was alive.
Sevillias, Vrba, Abeles, Daniel, and Arad are unusual people even among survivors. They epitomize the qualities that made survival possible in the most extreme situations. At the same time, they personify most clearly an essential truth that applied to everyone who surmounted the odds. They were lucky after they had tried to save themselves.
Almost all the Jews who were liberated at the end of the war had suffered a loss. For many, as in Old Romania, the damage was primarily material: savings, jobs, and apartments were gone. For some, including most of the camp survivors, the permanent hurt was the death of close family members. For still others, particularly those who were very young, the time in which one goes to school had slipped away.
Few of the survivors stepped into the postwar world with lasting physical illnesses or disabilities. They could not have survived in the first place if they had been crippled or blind. They were not, however, completely at peace. Those who were in their twenties or thirties, among them young widowers and widows, not infrequently married other survivors. Many who would normally have sought some advanced education did not pursue it. On occasion they would refer to themselves as 'graduates' of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. They had great difficulty, like the refugees before the war, to say something about their experiences. The postwar societies of Israel and the United States were forward looking, and these countries were also confronted with new adversaries: Israel with the Arabs, the United States with the Soviet Union. The survivor had no audience and frequently felt the isolation of someone who cannot be understood. Many memoirs were written, but not for large audiences. Elie Wiesel wrote his story for Jewish readers in Yiddish under the title And the World Was Silent. The book was published in Argentina and only later, reduced in size, was it read everywhere under the title Night. Primo Levi reports that his memoir was first published in an edition of twenty-five hundred copies and that six hundred, on the remainder list, were drowned in a Florentine flood.