From Socialist Worker Review, No. 110, June 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Unbroken: Resistance and Survival in the Concentration Camps
Lawrence & Wishart 1988, £12.50
A PREVALENT idea about the Nazi concentration camp slaughters is that the slaughtered went to their deaths like sheep. Resistance was non-existent, perhaps because its only possible outcome would be greater slaughter.
This book gives the lie to that idea. This simple and unemotional account by a Polish Jewish communist member of an agitprop theatre in Berlin, of his time in prison and concentration camp, bears witness to the indomitable spirit of resistance in utmost adversity.
In the midst of the hellish conditions of Nazi genocide and mass murder by exhaustion, starvation, freezing, burning torture, hanging, shooting and every other possible horrific method, organised resistance was carried on in every concentration camp.
Members of the Communist Party, according to the book, were at the heart of the organisation in which, however, Social Democrats, Trotskyists and others also participated. The numbers involved, owing to the hazardous and clandestine nature of the activity, were inevitably small, in a good case perhaps ten in a hut of 300 to 400. But their influence went far beyond their numbers.
The aim of the resistance was to save lives and humanise the regime in the camps. To this end they endeavoured to get appointed by the SS to as many posts of responsibility as they could – in the kitchen and food distribution, the sick bays, as hut stewards, as aides to the SS in camp administration – in order to maintain as equitable a distribution of food and clothing as possible. The weak and sick when possible received extra supplies. They kept morale as high as they could through political and other education and cultural activity.
They were frequently successful in acquiring these positions of influence, as the SS’s alternative choice was the common criminals, who could not be relied on. The result of these efforts was a smaller death rate from avoidable hazards such as starvation, exhaustion, suffocation etc. in those huts in the camps where organisation was good.
Organisation and planning sometimes even went beyond one camp. News was spread and groups kept alive by political inmates getting messenger jobs between neighbouring parts of a complex of camps. Only very occasionally did resistance take the form of physical confrontation.
If prisoners worked on war projects the politicial activists endeavoured to organise sabotage, with some success despite frightful SS reprisals. This was most dramatically carried out in the factory for the manufacture of flying bombs tunnelled into the Harz mountains.
The book revolves around the life of one Jewish communist for whom the Soviet Union and East Europe after the war represented what he fought for, and there is little criticism of the communist bloc.
The author, brother-in-law of the main character, does have a couple of doubts though. One is that the most influential and revered leader in the resistance organisation escaped liquidation in Moscow by being in prison in Poland (the Polish Workers’ Party was dissolved in 1938 and its leaders summoned to Moscow where “they disappeared”).
But such allusions are not explained and read oddly in a book otherwise uncritical of Russia and East Germany and full of praise for the Communist Party members who are the subject of his study.
The book performs a useful service in shedding light on a heroic band of unknown communists and socialists – hitherto ignored in favour of famous opponents of Nazism like Pastor Niemoller – who carried on day-to-day organised resistance in the most perilous conditions.
Last updated: 7.3.2012