What Were They Thinking… Love in a Concentration Camp?

People who are called “writers” are sort-changed by the term. Most “writing” involves some a priori thinking. But I guess it’s rude to pick people out as “thinkers”. After all, doesn’t everyone think?

Perhaps, but some writers spend more time thinking — or maybe they push on with their thinking where others fall away. So, in the spirit of kicking on, here’s the first of ‘What Were They Thinking?’, a look at stories in the news and an attempt to consider not just what the story’s protagonists are thinking, but what the journalist or author must have been thinking about to get the story told.

My first pick is this, published in The Guardian recently:

The best writing upends, challenges and disrupts core cultural signposts. Signpost one says that falling in love is necessarily a good and wonderful thing. This ignores the inconvenient fact that it often involves some sort of suffering. If you’re lucky, you get to fall in love with someone who also falls in love with you and your relationship is validated and endorsed by the society you live in and you live happily ever after. But this is very much the exception. In fact falling in love can look like a curse, even a death sentence — it highjacks your life, skews your life’s path on a different direction, alienates those who disapprove for whatever reason, and haunts you if it doesn’t work out. Think Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

The truth is the dyadic bliss Hollywood sells is elusive, and glorifying it condemns millions of people to romanic “failure”, to live in the shadows of their own lives — or even, as in this story, in the very Underworld. Can there be love in the Underworld? The story challenges cosy ideals of love because real life is messy and complicate: here, almost unimaginably so — which isn’t to say it’s not worth the effort of trying.

Signpost two: a female Nazi guard falling in love, or even lust, with a Jewish woman in a concentration camp is just so… wrong? Back in 1940s homosexuality was seen as evil, a sin, a crime. The essence of this story is that society makes judgements about what is and what is not acceptable human behaviour, and those judgements are still front and centre of a community in the most extreme imaginable circumstances — the Holocaust. Even amidst of mass, industrial persecution, minor persecutions — here, two women in a relationship — persist. How messed up are we?

‘You have to go beyond the signposts and do your own thinking’

You, the reader, are obliged to go beyond the signposts and do your own thinking. What was going on for the key participants, in this case the Nazi guard and the Jewish prisoner? This is unknown territory: what’s happening here about has no name. Descriptive language has described Stockhausen Syndrome, where the kidnapped identify with and validate their kidnappers. But this is the opposite of that. There is a name for something similar — Lima syndrome, which was coined in 1996 when a hostage situation developed at the Japanese embassy in Lima, in Peru. But in that situation the kidnappers empathised with their victims and couldn’t kill them as they had engaged in long conversations with their captives. There were no romantic implications.

Let’s consider the Nazi guard. One thing we can say for sure is that any sort of fraternising by a guard with the inmates in a concentration camp meant breaking every rule, every taboo. At the very least you could say that this was not a good career move on the part of the guard. And to have followed this prisoner to two other concentration camps as the Nazi guard did, from the first concentration camp “in Hamburg” to a second (unnamed) camp, and finally to Bergen-Belsen —three camps in total — is astonishing in its recklessness. Is this love? You decide, but the minimum you must concede is that this guard’s feelings were so strong that the entire machinery of Nazism was powerless to stop her. Maybe love does conquer everything — as long as the authorities don’t find out. What society encourages is a version of love where a man and a woman hive off and spend the rest of their lives besotted with each other. Any idea of love as a wild, uncontrollable thing which makes a mockery of the rules-based world we have built (and which is destroying us and the world with it, by the way) has to be eradicated. But that’s what this story is: it crosses lines. It’s madness. It foments disorder. Its manifestation is the opposite of convenient, the antidote to consumerism. Love as a terrifying journey into the underworld? It would make a great movie — as long as there’s a happy ending.

But maybe this isn’t a love story, maybe it’s a tale of manipulation and control. Clearly there’s a power dynamic at work in the relationship, one which requires further consideration. Let’s peel it back a bit.

“If I had an hour to solve the problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask, for once I knew the proper questions, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes” — Albert Einstein

In theory, the Nazi guard has all the power. At any moment she could surely have ended the Jewish woman’s life. But her love, adoration or infatuation — take your pick — made her powerless. Was the Jewish woman as powerless? Ws she a victim? It doesn’t seem so. In fact, the object of desire has vast powers at his or her disposal: the power to dispense favours, to show or not to show affection, to repudiate the advances of the suitor if they are unwanted. The power to say yes or no. But as a Jewish woman in a concentration camp, it’s possible she might be inclined to manipulate the situation somehow so that she stays alive. Did she though? We don’t know. Perhaps only she knows the answer: no one has the right to judge her. There is only one clue: the daughter explains in the article in the Guardian that:

“ She said specifically she was never sexually or physically abused. I think she got away with a lot because she was charming, beautiful and a bit cheeky. She said to the woman who was doing the number [tattoo] on her arm, ‘Do you mind making it a bit smaller so it looks okay with my evening dress?’”

The woman sounds pretty smart, and funny, perhaps even coquettish, but the key part is that she says she “was never sexually or physically abused”. That’s a big concession and you have to respect her for not playing the victim card — but then again, in a world where love is the primary reason for existence, the victim is the Nazi guard: that’s why they call it “falling” in love.

Everything about this story suggests the Jewish woman wasn’t the victim: she emerges from this incredible story not just with her life intact, but her self-respect. How about you? Yes there were huge pressures on her, but did her character endure, did she maintain her moral integrity in these appalling circumstances? Isn’t that incredible? And if love can find a way to reveal its face in the most dire circumstances that humanity has ever devised for itself, doesn’t that mean that love conquers everything?

The daughter can surely rest assured that, whatever the outcome of this legal case, her mother was a remarkable woman, and someone to be intensely proud of.

And the guard? She was described by camp survivors as “decent”. That’s none too bad an epitaph.

Apologies: this article is longer journey than intended. But even if it’s described by Medium as an “eight-minute read”, that’s just one-hundreth ot the time it took to do the thinking required to write it, and one-billionth of the time it took these two women to live it. And I like to think you’ve just spent eight very useful minutes considering the astonishing truth, which we all know but which manifests but rarely in real life, of the magnificent primality of love, and how love and the lessons of love will endure far beyond every tyranny man tries to impose on this earthly realm.

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Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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Mike Scialom

Mike Scialom

Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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