Mitsein in the Death Camps

by Georgios Tsagdis

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like a projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all. The rest –
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.[1]

The title of my talk announces in an almost sordid manner a matter that for many has long assumed the aura of an exceptional banality. Isn’t it rather in bad taste to wish to stir today an abyss of corpses in civilized company? What is there, anyway, left to be shown, or said? I am already certain, your very presence here, today, disagrees. And yet something in us, something elemental, wishes both to look away from the horror, while wishing to do the impossible, stare straight into the face of the Gorgon. In the face of the most ghastly of sights we are compelled like Leontios of the Platonic Republic, to cry to our eyes: “You unhappy creatures, feast. Take your fill of this lovely sight.”[2] Ultimately, neither revulsion, nor tact is enough to keep us from touching upon this question that calls our very being into question. What does it mean to live in a place of death? What does it mean to think a place of death? Is it possible, even if it is right, to ask this question of meaning?

I prefigured my talk with the Passion of Ravensbrück, the work of a poet, who despite having been translated by the most eminent of poets-Ted Hughes, Pierre Emmanuel, Tomas Tranströmer-remains in virtual obscurity outside the borders of Hungary. János Pilinszky was a witness of the camps—not however as a prisoner. Drafted in the late days of the war into the Hungarian army, Pilinszky was forced to serve for the retreating Nazi allies, finding himself in this capacity in a series of camps. This fact in the life of a poet whose claim to remembrance seems little broader than his poems on and from the Holocaust, is in principle silenced. Yet this fact obliges us to place Pilinszky next to Celan, in order to refute from both sides of the fence, the misguided charge that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[3]

Not only after, but even during, that is, within, the camp was poetry that last shred of – let us say, for lack of a better word – culture that kept life from death. Martin S., survivor of Buchenwald, the same man who confesses in tears his inhumane self-interest in the camp he entered as a child, would sing with other children songs written by inmate poets and musicians.[4] Is Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, premiered at the camp of Görlitz, on the 15th of January 1941, in front of an audience of 400 fellow prisoners and guards,[5] a surprise? Is Messiaen’s account: « Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,”[6] a surprise? Not even the Muse of History remained idle in the camp of Lübeck, impelling Braudel to compose the hundreds of pages that came to be The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Is this a sign of barbarity, twice so, given the provocative irrelevance of its theme, a world of bygone empires?

Even Adorno found all this too much. Fifteen years later, he wrote: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.”[7]

The right to poetry is replaced by the right to, or better, the question of life. This question manifests itself as guilt. It takes hold, not despite the elation and affirmation of life that the survivor experiences in himself, but as Elias Canetti knew all too well, because of it. Allow me a second, last poem, by someone who, in his own words became a writer because of Auschwitz.[8]

Once more he sees his companions’ faces // Livid in the first faint light, //Gray with cement dust, // Nebulous in the mist, // Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep. // At night, under the heavy burden // Of their dreams, their jaws move, // Chewing a nonexistent turnip.

‘Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people, //Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone, // Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread. // No one died in my place. No one. // Go back into your mist. // It’s not my fault if I live and breathe, // Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.[9]

In The Survivor, Primo Levi confronts the drowned face-to-face, addresses the most direct of voices to them. This is not a ‘poetic matter’, but the task of a life, a task of life, a task where life meets life that is already dead and decides to live. This address towards the drowned, like so many others, from the hand of Levi, is in truth a dialogue. As every dialogue, it arrives in language, which, as Levi knows, cannot remain unaffected: “where violence is inflicted on man, it is also inflicted on language.”[10] Sometimes, only poetry will withstand the violence, search for a new origin, a new language.

You didn’t expect a talk on Holocaust literature, and I did not intend to offer one. But since I decided against keeping twenty minutes of silence, which you must believe me, I truly contemplated, I found it impossible to speak without alibi. Because, let us recall the Latin, alibi means elsewhere, and I was certainly elsewhere, my parents and my grandparents too, I wasn’t there and I wonder: if even those who where there can barely summon the will to speak, what can possibly justify my talk. But if, again thinking with Levi, not even those who survived are the true witnesses – those being the drowned, the ones who never returned – and if they, the survivors, must “speak in in their stead, by proxy,” my talk today justifies itself as no more and no less than a Platonic work of art, as the imitation of an imitation, twice removed from the idea of death. At the same time, I can only name this art philosophy, if philosophy is since the Phaedo a study (meletē) of death.[11]

We are here to honour and draw on the work of a man, who hardly needs any introduction, especially after the great contributions of yesterday. Tzvetan Todorov’s book on the camps was my first, almost chance, encounter with the vast literature on the Holocaust, in my early teenage. The indelible and liberating relief that Facing the Extreme afforded me with, was that the state of nature, the war of all against all in the old adage homo homini lupus, must not and cannot be taken as a given; even on the grimmest hour a choice is possible and indeed, necessary. Facing the Extreme made me see that the never complete de-humanization undertaken at the camps did not arrive at any kind of ‘ultimate human reality’. Rather, this ‘reality’ was the postulate that the very construction of the camps aimed to and yet, even by means of a previously unthinkable violence, failed to construct.[12]

Todorov does not lend himself to an easy optimism; no one who has seen or read the surviving testimonies can. The reason he decides to seek an alternative to cruelty in the cruelest of places is “not because moral life was superior in the camps but because it was more visible and thus more telling there.”[13] At the same time, if we are called to think death in order to live, we must turn to that place, which made death the sole reason of its existence. What we quickly discover in the camp is this German word of my title, contradicted at surface by Pilinszky’s opening poem. Mitsein, which we might begin by translating as ‘being-with’ is that element in the thought of Heidegger that obtains in the face of death a pervasive significance in the camps. Heidegger the Nazi, and Todorov, the Humanist, stand here in uncanny proximity.

Allow me, while simplifying greatly, a succinct account of two fundamental traits in Heidegger’s understanding of our Dasein, our existence. We are thrown (geworfen), into the world; we do not choose the language, the country, the parents, the era, nothing, of the conditions in which we find ourselves. And as soon as we find ourselves, our being is confronted with death. Death is that constant presence, certain yet unspecified, that orients our being, a being that is, precisely, unto death (Sein-Zum-Tode). From this orientation meaning and its eclipse proceed. At this level of abstraction, this thrownness-unto-death that for Heidegger constitutes our existence, seems like an accurate description of the camp. But something readily protests in us, about this gross generalization. Still, what if the Da of Da-sein, that literary means ‘there’, what if this ‘there’ of our existence is the camp?

Todorov offers four possibilities that didn’t fail to find a place in the camps: solidarity, charity, sacrifice and caring. Solidarity is the feeling, shared by a group that replaces the selfishness of an ‘I’, with the selfishness of a ‘we’; it is a political, rather than moral act. On the other side of the spectrum stands charity, the descendant of caritas and in turn of agapē, the highest of Christian virtues. Todorov dismisses charity on such grounds as an episode of War and Peace, where Karatayev saves Pierre’s life, the same way he should save the life of an animal. This episode is evoked to illustrate charity’s utter lack of scope, which conflates the human with the other animal races, when of course, morality must remain a human, that is, a racial, prerogative. Charity is then taken to reflect an essential asymmetry, which wishes to know nothing of and expects nothing from its recipient, an act that always runs the danger of becoming a proud display of pity. The religious undertones of sacrifice are enough to discredit it along with charity. Giving away something precious, the need of making others know the cost of what was sacrificed, culminates in the glorification of death.[14]

Solidarity, charity and sacrifice in and beyond the work of Todorov, must be certainly thought and again thought anew. For the time being, let me follow Todorov as he sails through and past these three notions. His passage is called care. In care Todorov recognizes a moral practice that affirms life, an act that is its own reward and which constitutes its own happiness, a practice founded on reciprocity, which proceeds from personal sympathy, rather than abstract duty.[15] This care played a critical role in the camp.

Care (Sorge) has an equally catalytic function for Heidegger. Dasein as Mitsein, that is, our existing and being-there as being-with, is articulated through care. Aside of his intricate analysis of its structure, Heidegger in Being & Time, allows myth (shall we say, art?) for one and only time to do the work of philosophy. He evokes an old fable, with a complex history of transmission that goes at least as far back as Hyginus. The fable runs:

“Once when ‘care’ was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took a piece and began to shape it. While she was thinking about what she had made, Jupiter came by. ‘Care’ asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, Jupiter forbade this and demanded that it be given his name instead. While ‘Care’ and Jupiter were arguing, Earth (Tellus) arose, and desired that her name be conferred upon the creature, since she had offered it part of her body. They asked Saturn [or in the Greek Kronos, time] to be the judge. And Saturn gave them the following decision, which seemed to be just: “Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you should receive that spirit at death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since ‘Care’ first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called ‘homo,’ for it is made out of humus (earth).”[16]

Care possesses man through and through. Heidegger identifies in care a pre- and as such an a-moral structure of Da-Sein in the way it manifests itself co-originarily as Mit-sein. Being thrown, we always already exist with one another in the face of death through care. This is not a matter of morality. On the one hand care implicates us deeper than Todorov’s recognition that “Life in society is not a matter of choice; [and that] we are always already social.”[17] On the other, while according with Todorov’s diction that the existence and distinction of selfishness and altruism “in no way influences our sociality,”[18] this sociality, this being-with, translated into care, fails to account for its absolute degeneration into the ruthlessness of the camps. What is left of the meaning of care, when a fundament ontological structure that is neither psychological nor moral, lends itself to what can in no way be thought of as care. To put it as simply as possible, how can Totenkopf-malice be the manifestation of a structure of care?[19]

Long before the beginning of the Holocaust and even before the existence of the SS, Heidegger had abandoned the use of the word ‘care’, along with most of Being & Time’s jargon, including the attempt to approach being through its ‘with’. But Jean-Luc Nancy, would take this word up again, half a century later, inviting us to think anew Being from the ‘with’. Certainly, we are always already social, always already with the other; perhaps even always already governed by care. At the same time, we are always threatened by the collapse of its structure. This hardly amounts to the recognition of an innate human goodness, liable to extinction in adversity. It refers rather to the possibility of a disinvestment, akin to the nudity of the bodies led to the gas chambers.

When Todorov closes his work Life in Common with the words: “Life in common guarantees, in the best of cases, only a fragile happiness;”[20] we are left with a task. What is truly radical in this task, presupposes the need “to become conscious that the aim of human desire is not pleasure, but the relation between men.”[21] This need proceeds from the fact that “the world is a ‘with’: [that] Being consists thus in being delivered to the ‘with’.”[22] This ‘with’ is not a matter of a nearness or a community of ipses, but the infinite task of co-ipseity.[23] The ‘with’ does not amount to an addition or juxtaposition of “I’s”, but presents us with a ‘we’ that becomes the condition of the possibility of an ‘I’.[24] This Being-with, sets in doubt the Heideggerian proposition that we never experience the dying of others in a genuine sense, that we are at best just « there » (Da) too.”[25] Even if one cannot die for the other in an absolute sense,[26] that is re-place one’s own ‘there’ with that of another, one can die with another; the possibility that one may discover in the other a comourant, quotidian and glorious at once, allows us to return to the question that addresses us from the camps and answer that we can and must live and die together.

I have barely touched upon the significance of this answer. I wouldn’t wish to close however without making two claims: First, the ultimate question for me regards the manifestation of care not between inmates, since such care might always be recast into a case of solidarity: all inmates do share the fundamental fact of their captivity. Rather what calls for thought – and the testimonies, studies, etc are already there – is the potential of an ineradicable trace of care in the ‘there’ that both inmates and guards inhabited. If man has come to witness the atrocity of the camps, this trace is certainly insufficient. But the reason of this insufficiency should be precisely sought in that generalized collapse of the structure of ‘being-with’ that divests the other from every attribute: the prisoner is not an enemy, is not even an – animal – slave. Despite all, not every guard reached that limit.

Secondly, I believe that next to and perhaps before the psycho-somatic foundering that sank a human into the figure of a Muselmann, in the jargon of Auschwitz, that is, into a husk without hope or will for salvation, an ultimate ontological dissolution of every tie of the ‘with’ sealed the fate of this figure. When everyone dear is a devastated memory and the future looms bereft of all faith in a ‘with’, life is already lost.


[1] János Pilinszky, Passion of Ravensbrück, 1959. (trans: Ted Hughes and Csokits János).

[2] Plato, Republic, 4.439e-40a.

[3] Adorno, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society,’ in Prisms (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1997), 34.

[4] Documentary; Witness: Voices from the Holocaust.

[5] Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2003), 62.

[6] Joseph Stevenson, All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music (All Media Guide, 2005), 843.

[7] Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 2004), 362-3.

[8] See for example, Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (London: Abacus, 2003), 106. This confession recurs in different guises in the work of Levi, not without its own guilt. The camp not only compelled Levi to recount its experience in writing, but through this first act led him to the temptation of writing, the pleasure of fiction, at odds with the primary function of testimony that animated Levi’s hand.

[9] Levi, Moments of Reprieve (London: Penguin, 2003), 13.

[10] Levi, The drowned and the saved, 76

[11] Plato, Phaedo, 80e-1a.

[12] Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the Extreme (New York: Henry Bolt & Co, 2000), 34-9.

[13] Todorov, Facing the Extreme, 43.

[14] Todorov, Facing the Extreme, 71-90.

[15] Todorov, Facing the Extreme, 84-6.

[16] Heidegger, Being and Time, (New York: SUNY, 1996),, §42, 184.

[17] Tzvetan Todorov, Life in Common (London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 144.

[18] Todorov, Life in Common, 147.

[19] Even if in Himmler’s words the Totenkopf might become the symbolic “reminder that you shall always be willing to put yourself at stake for the life of the whole community.” Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler, Biographie (München: 2010), 298.

[20] Todorov, Life in Common, 150.

[21] Todorov, Life in Common, 145.

[22] Nancy, ‘Shattered Love’, in The Inoperative Community (Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 103.

[23] Nancy, Being Singular Plural (Stanford: University Press, 2000), 44.

[24] Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 65.

[25] Heidegger, Being and Time, II.i, §47, 222.

[26] Heidegger, Being and Time, II.i, §47, 223.