Communists in concentration camps

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 18 19:58:47 MDT 2003

At 09:37 PM 8/18/2003 -0400, you wrote:
>Can anyone answer this query from a friend?
>>Incidentally, I once read a review in the Nation (this was perhaps 10
>>years ago) of a book by a German communist survivor of a concentration
>>camp. He described how the communists organised themselves in the camp.
>>It seemed very interesting. Have you heard of it? I think the title had
>>the word "resist" in it.

The Nation, 5/8/1989
How They Survived

UNBROKEN: Resistance and Survival in the Concentration Camps. By Len Crome.
Schocken Books. 174pp. $18.95.

After almost a half-century of books about concentration camps, the desire
to say . "Enough already" is understandable. But Unbroken: Resistance and
Survival in the Concentration Camps is different. It depicts prisoners who
never allowed their will to be crushed and struggled relentlessly against
the Nazis in ways we were led to believe were possible only in Hollywood
films. This book, for all its horrors, leaves the reader heartened by what
principled people working together can achieve against overwhelming odds.

Len Crome, a pathologist who has written a spate of scientific articles and
books on subjects like mental deficiency, served as a doctor with the
International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and the British Royal Army
Medical Corps during World War 11. He tells the story of resistance
primarily through the experience of his brother-in-law, Jonny Huttner, who
spent nine years in Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Crome draws on
information from a variety of archives and files, including those of the
Gestapo. Another source was his wife, Helen, Jonny's younger sister. Part
I, the heart of the book, alternates between background chapters and
Jonny's first-person reports. He was born into a Jewish working-class
family in Berlin in 1913. Unable to support his wife and children, Jonny's
father  Milton Schwebel teaches psychology at Rutgers University. He edited
Mental Health Implications of Life in the Nuclear Age (Sharpe) and is
co-author of the forthcoming A Guide to a Happier Family (Tarcher/St.
Martin) and Personal Adjustment and Growth: A Life-Span Approach (W.C. Brown).

Jonny started work at 14 but was unemployed much of the time. Like many
others in his position, he was drawn to the Communist Party. Through his
sister Helen, Jonny was introduced to Das Rote Sprachrohr (Red Megaphone),
one of the agitprop theaters associated with the party. The members of this
creative and influential theater group are the main characters in Crome's
narrative as he relates their heady experiences in the struggles of the
time. They presented their first show, protesting imperialist intervention
in China, in 1927, and continued until Hitler came to power in 1933, when
open activity ceased and the members applied their dramatic talents and
political acumen in other groups.

In Part 11, Crome describes the often harrowing experiences of the leading
members of the group before and during the war and their lives afterward.
Most of the company survived the Third Reich. Mow did they manage that,
considering their risky political activity and the fact that some of them
were Jews? The answer may lie in the high morale instilled in the theater
group by its leader, Maxim Vallentin. (After the war, he founded and became
the director of the Maxim Gorky Theater in Berlin.) He helped them develop
feelings of mutual respect and a spirit of collectivity, which enabled the
members to remain committed anti-Fascists and, even in the darkest days, to
trust one another and not to panic. Part I11 presents one of the theater
group's few surviving scripts. Imprisoned in 1936, Jonny realized early
that identifying trustworthy associates in the camps was crucial to
survival. He found that during daily exercise, even in truncated
conversation, he could discover such men. He also learned that resistance -
even a useless act - was emotionally satisfying. In each camp he joined or
helped form a cluster of men to engage in resistance through providing
mutual aid for fellow prisoners, especially the weak and sick. Satisfying
the need required a constant search for extra food, because survival on
camp food beyond six months was impossible. Jonny himself was the
beneficiary of aid when he broke a fibula.

His life hung in the balance, because prisoners unable to work for more
than a week or two were gassed, and a fibula takes about six weeks to mend.
Since there was no treatment for Jews in the camp sick bay, his comrades
removed his identifying yellow star, got him admitted to the hospital for
X-rays and a cast, arranged to have him remain for six weeks and brought
him an extra piece of bread each day. Actions like these were possible only
because the resistance organizations had their own people in administrative
positions, including the sick bay, and when necessary used bribery. High
morale depended on satisfying more than the prisoners' physical needs,
though. Through political work, for example, members of the resistance
helped bewildered young prisoners understand what had happened in their lives.

The men organized choral and instrumental groups and encouraged performers,
like the virtuoso guitar player who could sing in many languages and went
from hut to hut enlivening the disheartened of many nations. As another
morale booster, the men would mark one another's birthdays with homemade
cards, sometimes accompanying them with a piece of bread. Still other tasks
were to notify families that their relatives were in camp, keep track of
murder victims and Nazi criminals, and organize the escape of prisoners who
were in grave danger. As the ultimate form of resistance, they resorted to
sabotage whenever the opportunity arose, as it did for Jonny in a camp that
produced buzz bombs and rockets. In all, their effort was to frustrate the
Nazi intention to reduce them to "mindless hopelessness and apathy." One
incident reveals that even in the face of death, some could remain
coolheaded, courageous and mindful of the safety of other prisoners. Jonny
and seventeen others, believing that the 450 Jews in a camp were being
prepared for the gas chamber, engaged in a defiant demonstration. With
12,000 prisoners assembled on the barrack square, they smashed the windows
of their hut and ran onto the square shouting at the SS guards, "Shoot, you
cowards!" With their usual regard for life, they chose a route that placed
them in a line of fire posing no risk to the others. But there were no
shots. The demonstrators were kicked and beaten and kicked and beaten and
then marched past the columns of prisoners, in Jonny's words, "unafraid and

Years later, when he reflected on his survival for nine years while
ninety-nine of every hundred perished, Jonny admitted to an element of
luck. For the most part, though, it was the help of his comrades,
especially the many non-Jews who at great risk to themselves helped the
more vulnerable. "We were indeed a band of brothers," Jonny said. Although
women figure only briefly in the concentration camp narrative, they did
participate in the camp resistance network. Crome shows them to have been
active in the opposition during the early Nazi years, and they were
sometimes imprisoned (as Helen was). Unbroken is a parable for our time.
Twenty years after Kitty Genovese's brutal murder, which some thirty people
watched without alerting the police, it is comforting to read about those
who were unafraid to get involved, and to remind oneself of the countless
people, here and abroad, who are active today in the causes of peace,
equality and ecology, and in struggles against AIDS and homelessness.
Members of the Social Democratic and Communist parties worked together in
the resistance movements in the camps, overcoming the fateful disharmony
between them that enabled Hitler to come to power. Implicitly, at least,
Jonny and Len Crome tell us it is not too late for nations to come together
and save the world from the several forms of destruction that threaten it.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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