The hope that kills

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.

Borowski, pp. 121-122.


For purposes of defense, reality can be distorted not only in memory but in the very act of taking place. Throughout the year of my imprisonment in Auschwitz I had Alberto D. as a fraternal friend: he was a robust, courageous young man, more clearsighted than the average and therefore very critical of the many who fabricated for themselves, and reciprocally administered to each other, consolatory illusions ("The war will be over in two weeks", "There will be no more selections", "The English have landed in Greece", "The Polish Partisans are about to liberate the camp," and so on, rumors heard nearly every day and punctually given the lie by reality). Alberto had been deported together with his forty-five year old father. In the imminence of the great selection of October 1944, Alberto and I had commented on this event with fright, impotent rage, rebellion, resignation, but without seeking refuge in comforting truths. The selection came, Alberto's "old" father was chosen for the gas, and in the space of a few hours, Alberto changed. He had heard rumors that seemed to him worthy of belief: the Russians are close by, the Germans would no longer dare persist in this slaughter, that was not a selection like the others, it was not for the gas chamber, but had been made to choose the weakened but salvageable prisoners, in fact like his father, who was very tired but not ill; indeed, he even knew where they would be sent, to Jaworzno, not far away, to a special camp for convalescents fit only for light labor.

Naturally, his father was never seen again, and Alberto himself vanished during the evacuation march from the camp, in January 1945.

Levi, Drowned, pp. 33-34.

The hope that sustains

Let me see your arm....Hmmm....Your number starts with seventeen. In Hebrew, that's "K'Minyan Tov". Seventeen is a very good omen...

(He was a priest. He wasn't Jewish--but very intelligent!)

It ends with 13, the day a Jewish boy becomes a man...And look! Added together it totals 18. That's "Chai", the Hebrew number of life. I can't know if I'll survive this hell, but I'm certain you'll come through all this alive!

(I started to believe. I tell you, he put another life in me. And whenver it was very bad I looked and said:"Yes. The priest was right! It totals eighteen.")

Art Spiegelman, Maus II, p. 28.