The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 93-114
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Suicide After Auschwitz
Do you always have to be there just because you were there once?
It is claimed almost without exception that suicide was rare in the Nazi concentration and death camps. References appear in the writings of Primo Levi, Bruno Bettleheim, Jean Améry, Victor Frankl, Hannah Arendt; in studies devoted specifically to the topic of suicide in the camps; and in major studies of suicide. 1
The basis for such claims is nevertheless tenuous, in part because they are based on either survivor testimony or Nazi records. In the case of the former, statistical claims by survivors would seem particularly hampered by the fact that "in the inhuman conditions to which they were subjected, the prisoners could barely acquire an overall vision of their universe," as Primo Levi writes; it is telling that when Levi mentions the rarity of suicides in the camps, he cites the findings of the "historians of the Lager." 2 Nazi records are not only incomplete but inherently biased. 3 Prisoners who decided to die by approaching the electrified fences surrounding Auschwitz-Birkenau, for instance, were commonly recorded as "shot while attempting to escape," not as suicides; while the murders of certain prisoners may have been recorded as suicides. 4 The evidence that supports the notion of a low suicide rate can thus easily be put to the service of the opposite argument. 5
Aside from the problems raised by the nature of the evidence, claims concerning the frequency of suicide in the camps face an inherent constraint in that they assume a "normal" suicide rate as a point of comparison. Even if such a norm could be established for the world outside the camps, the question would have to be posed of the validity of any comparison between that hypothetical norm and the univers concentrationnaire. 6 Any argument that would see the camp as the exception to the norm would then have to account for the ways in which the exception informs the very definition of the norm. 7 Indeed, the difficulty of comparing suicide inside and outside the camps is apparent from the difference between the questions and aims that motivate the study of one or the other: whereas conventional studies [End Page 93] of suicide attempt to understand why suicide takes place at all, usually with a view towards reforming or healing the conditions that encourage or fail to discourage suicide, discussions of suicide in the camps begin, explicitly or implicitly, with the question of why it did not take place (or not on a massive scale) under conditions that "should have been particularly generative of suicides." 8 Such a line of inquiry, however, cannot be put to the service of any project of therapy or reform, for such a project would have to assume the legitimacy of the camps. Rather, inquiries into the occurrence of suicide in the camps seem to challenge the general validity of conventional interpretive frameworks.
Discussions of suicide in the camps only become significant, then, at the point where they break with conventional interpretations of suicide, that is, interpretations that attempt to determine the moral, psychological, or social conditions that lead an individual to choose or to reject suicide. In one of the earliest studies of suicide in the concentration camps, Paul Citrome comments on the limitations of such explanations:
Some of these explanations remain valid for the concentrationary situation: stronger integration of the individual in the collective that is undergoing a common catastrophe, simplification of the social structure, extreme constriction of vital energy under the pressure of a permanent threat to life, liberation and discharge of the most antisocial aggressive and sado-masochistic tendencies, reversal of traditional values, devaluation of death in general and of suicide in particular. But behind these conditions, which are too general, too schematic, and too external, it is necessary to investigate the particular, specific situation of life in the concentration camps. 9
The characteristics of the camp listed here can be amended and challenged, but Citrome's point...