The role of group membership
Those inmates who were part of a community or group in the camp were also more likely to survive physically, sustain themselves psychologically and “remain human.” The community was a crucial source of emotional sustenance, morale building, and practical help to its members. Such social support also allowed the inmate to sustain his counter-narrative to the dehumanizing Nazi reality. Believers were all able to recreate, usually in a highly modified form, their former communities. In the camps, these inmates stayed together and assisted each other. In the case of devout Jews, they participated in communal religious rituals, such as secretly meeting to pray together, observing the Sabbath and the holidays, lighting Hanukkah candles, keeping kosher, studying Torah, baking matzahs and “conducting” Passover seders (Landes, 1983).18 Some Hasidim in Bergen-Belsen even made a sukkah (a hut in which observant Jews reside during the seven-day festival of Sukkot, commemorating God’s providence over the Israelites in the desert). Straw from a torn and dirty mattress acted as a makeshift roof (Eliach, 1980).
It hardly needs to be restated that Buber and Marcel’s believing humanism emphasized the need to realize Thou via community. Buber was a religious socialist, and community was defined as an organic unity, which has evolved from common beliefs, morals, possessions and/or work (Friedman, 2002, p. 52)). “Community is the overcoming of otherness in living unity” (Buber, 1957, p. 102). In Marcel’s version of the ontological development in man, community was an extremely important vehicle through which a person struggling with adversity' can create meaning: There “can be no hope which does not constitute itself through a we and for a we” (Marcel, 1973, p. 143). Both Buber and Marcel recognized that this often involved creating new ways of being together.
For the devout Jew (and Christian), the community' was considered to have intrinsic spiritual value and meaning.The preservation of“mitzvah-based communities” (Landes, 1983 p. 265), upholding the precepts and commandments that God commanded, was a way of maintaining and expressing the Jew’s deeply' internalized values, which gave individual Jews the feeling that their preHolocaust sense of self was not completely destroyed. This aided the inmates’ survival as it tended to help them reconstitute their ontological security, thereby defending themselves against the Nazi attempts at dehumanization and depersonalization. Sounding similar to Buber and Marcel, Auschwitz survivor/analyst Anna Ornstein points out (1985) that sustaining deeply internalized values within the camps indicated that the nuclear self more or less maintained its continuity in space and time regardless of the radical changes in one’s body and disruptions in one’s physical environment. In addition, she say's that in the camps, “the creation of small groups provided an opportunity to experience and express aspects of the nuclear self, specifically related to the pole of ideals, and it provided the all-important empathic selfobject19 matrix that reinforced a modicum of self-esteem” (p. 115).
For psychoanalytic intellectuals, however, the likelihood of their establishing a strong group membership was diminished not only because of practical considerations, such as a paucity of psychoanalytically oriented members, but also in part because their way of understanding their relationship to the community was influenced by their grim individualistic assumptions. For example, as Greenberg and Mitchell point out:
The unit of study of [Freudian] psychoanalysis is the individual, viewed as a discrete entity. Man is not, in Aristotle’s terms, a “political animal”; he does not require social organization to allow him to realize his true human potential. Society is imposed on an already complete individual for his protection, but at the cost of renunciation of many of his most important goals... It is thus possible and even necessary to speak of a person divorced from his interpersonal context.20
(1983, p. 44)
The pre-incarceration mindset of the psychoanalytic inmate was not geared to seeing other people, in the communal context, as a resource. Rather, the Freudian version of the person hypothesizes an atomistic, autonomous, selfregarding individual more or less devoid of an intrinsic social or communal existence. Moreover, Freud portrays human society as fundamentally unstable, trying to control and fend off forces antagonistic, if not subverting, to its very existence. For Freud, the battle between primordial human instinct and civilization is inevitable. Aggressiveness is a deep and abiding feature of human nature. Such a view neither facilitates reaching out to others nor fosters community. Relational theories of psychoanalysis have to some extent revised the abovedescribed cynical and gloomy Freudian version of the human condition, such as maintaining that individuals desire relationships with others for the inherent satisfaction of connectedness, and not merely to diminish drive energy. Thus, from the perspective of the relational/structural model of the mind,“there is no human nature outside society,” and “human fulfillment is sought in the establishment and maintenance of relationship with others” (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983,p. 403).This being said, the tendency of contemporary relational theorists to embrace a postmodern epistemology has created a whole series of problems for how it understands knowledge and truth (Govrin, 2016), let alone resiliency during life in extremity, such as the Nazi concentration camps. For as I have suggested, from the perspective of the believing inmate, the eternal/Absolute Thou, for example, was an objective reality and truth, though not necessarily one that was always accessible to reason (a mystery), but still a soul-saving basis for a leap to faith.
Finally, while psychoanalysis provides an intellectual orientation and a camaraderie with other analysts, it does not generate the same kind of communal loyalty and devotion that religion or a fundamentalist political ideology does. A psychoanalytic worldview does not confer upon the individual a spiritual membership in a community that, theoretically at least, has existed for thousands of years and is inspired by thought of contact with the eternal/Absolute Thou. Such membership, for the devout Jew and all such religious believers, is mainly brought about through living a life of selflessness, compassion and justice, that is, a life of responsibility for and to the other, a holy life.
Summary: why did religious believers fare better than the psychoanalytic intellectuals in sustaining themselves as persons in the camps?
Unlike the psychoanalytic intellectuals, the believers, in particular the devout Jews, had a symbolically mediated relation between themselves and the extreme situation that gave a specific meaning to their environment in the camps, one that was “symbolic of a transcendent” truth (Geertz, 1973, p. 98) and that gave them a more helpful general orientation through which to view the horror they were experiencing. This self-sustaining, transcendent-pointing truth was rooted in a deep-seated sense of responsibility for the other (i.e., fellow inmates and the eternal/Absolute Thou), a truth that to some extent made the devout Jew steadfast and immovable, maybe even serene, relatively speaking. As Geertz points out in a different context, for the devout Jew the extreme situation of the camps had a greater degree of“interpretability” (ibid.,p. 100).
In contrast, psychoanalytic intellectuals felt utterly overwhelmed by a situation that was “at the limits of their analytic capacities, at the limits of their powers of endurance and at the limits of their moral insight” (ibid.). Geertz further says, if situations of “bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox” become intense enough or are endured long enough, they radically challenge peoples ability to orient themselves effectively within them. Such situations threaten “to unhinge” one’s mind (ibid.).
Thus, the psychoanalytic intellectual did not have the symbolic resources to make the extreme situation sufferable. However, devout Jews had religious symbols which provided “a cosmic guarantee not only for their ability to comprehend the world, but also, comprehending it, to give a precision to their feeling, a definition to their emotions” (ibid., p. 104) that enabled them to better endure the extreme situation. Intense, relentless brute pain could be endured “by placing it in a meaningful context, providing a mode of action through which it can be expressed, being expressed understood, and being understood, endured” (ibid.,p. 105). Psychoanalytic intellectuals did not have such symbolic resources by virtue of their psychoanalytic thinking and experience.
It should be emphasized that the Nazi concentration camp was not only a situation to be suffered; as in intense neurotic conflict, it also threatened the inmates’ ability to make moral judgments. The camps challenged the inmates’ “resources to provide a workable set of ethical criteria, normative guides to govern” their actions in the face of radical evil (ibid., p. 106). For Buber and Marcel, qua believers, there was an absurdity to suffering—such that it could never be adequately explained or justified (“eclipse of God,” and the realm of mystery, “despair ... that God has withdrawn himself from me,” as described by Buber and Marcel, respectively). Nevertheless, it could be viewed as a “test” (Hordes, 1971, p. 34) or“trial” (Marcel, 1984, p. 370), a sacrament that is sent to us and that we are obligated to respond to with trust and hope, and guided by the best of our religiously animated moral and ethical ideals.
Unlike devout Jews, who could draw on what they viewed as a God-given sacred moral code to give direction to their actions, psychoanalytic intellectuals were faced “with [an] intractable ethical paradox, the disquieting sense that one’s moral insight is inadequate to one’s moral experience” (Geertz, 1973, p. 98). Such an ethical paradox is of course characteristic, to some degree, of how all analysands experience their serious problems in living, especially in the moral realms of love and other interhuman contexts. Psychoanalytic intellectuals were faced with the shattering sense that their intense pain lacked not only any manageable “emotional form,” but that their life in the camps lacked any “moral coherence” (ibid., p. 108). Consequently, they were prone to experience a high degree of “analytic, emotional, and moral impotence” in the face of evil and suffering (ibid.).
Though devout Jews had their doubts, uncertainties and questions, and made protests to their God for their suffering and the evil they were facing, they did have the faith that, while elusive, there was a moral, intellectual, and emotional explanation for their encounter with evil. The certainty that there was a principle or explanation that could and maybe would, in this world or the next, eventually make their suffering intelligible and meaningful meant that they could sustain the moral structures of their world. The believing inmates thus maintained a sense of agency, efficacy, and control over their situation. As Erving Goffman writes,“Strong religious and political convictions have served to insulate the true believer against the assaults of a total institution” (1961, p. 66).