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Review Of The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps

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The book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps by Terrence Des Pres, tells the psychological story of those who lived in death camps, during the holocaust. Terrence Des Pres shows many literary depictions of how one survived through testimonials, other fictional work and scientific research. Des Pres discuss how being a survivor is similar yet different to those of martyrs or heroes, as a survivor has no choice in which way they die. To be a survivor one must pull themselves through a challenge they did not want to be placed in in the first place. Living each day under new circumstances, circumstances that have become the new normal. This book and the material we have gone through in class has opened my eyes to see what living is really about. Yes, the class is “death and dying” and yes, we had many discussions about dying and death, but the ultimate lesson I have gained is that when you get to a point of dying or face death what truly matters is how you lived or how you will begin to live.

When looking at the qualifications it takes to write a book about the holocaust, specifically life in a death camp, many would say you had to be there to truly understand. For Des Pres, I believe, he meets a minimum qualification for writing on such a topic without actually being a survivor of a death camp. Des Pres was a professor of English literature at Colgate University, specifically teaching on holocaust literature, he also was considered a holocaust scholar, meaning he had a great depth of knowledge surrounding the holocaust it’s research, studies and literature pertaining to. These many details of Terrence Des Pres lead me to believe he was qualified to write such an impactful book without the necessary requirement of living through the tragedy. Not only did Des Pres write about this specific topic he also wrote a book relating to poetry and how it is used for survival, which shows a passion for writing on such an abstract concept such as survival.

Des Pres starts this book with the fictional accounts of survival, and how people view and understand what it is to survive. He brings in other novels that create an image for the reader to understand the difference between living and dying and surviving. Imagery used to show how one being killed after being wrongly accused seems to show that the blame did fall on them or that doing everyday task take on a whole new meaning when your world is turned upside down by a plague; giving readers some idea of what survival means in comparison to dying for a cause. The real struggle that someone who is trying to survive would go through, from the physical demands to mental torment, the fictional references help to illuminate a difficult concept of what surviving in a death camp means.

Not only are the fictional aspects important to help readers get into a survival mindset they set the stage for what Des Pres brings to light next, testimonies from survivors. Des Pres touches on how many survivors had a strong will to live solely to tell the story, to record and share their experience. Though this concept may seem minor on the survival scale, it helped many justify them living while others dead, and gave them a reason to continue their life in their new normal. Des Pres emphasizes that this concept of healing through the telling of their story and others is truly important to surviving, not a way to cope with the guilt of living over others.

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Another essential point that Des Pres brings is the torment that happened daily in death camps. Almost everyone knows of the horrific mass murders and the details surrounding death camps, but there is also the daily living that tends to be over shadowed, the psychological torture. In Des Pres accounts of the psychological torture he brings a point in that surviving is not simply living but keeping one’s humanness as well, as this is not an easy feat when being faced with such physical and mental suffering. For example, prisoners were purposely forced into positions that caused them to defecate themselves and then punished for not obey orders, producing embarrassment and physical aguish, trying to keep one’s self in a hopeful state of mind would be almost impossible. One of the many mental game played by guards while using the prisoners own body against them, the imagery that comes from these accounts shows just how strong the will must be to be a survivor, and just how easy it would have been to give into the torment and let one’s life go. This kind of torture brings one to feel less human and is the reason why surviving is more than living, because without our humanness what are we living for. Des Pres says that prisoners needed to awake and see these horrible acts to actually choose to stay human and stay alive.

Des Pres brings into account the social factor that played a large role in how many survived. Through accounts he reviews, many helped others, keeping the humanness alive but also in hopes to end their own suffering. We cannot look at survival (for this situation) as a solo affair but one of group survival, working together to get through the unbelievable circumstances. Des Pres looks at how some believed the individual mindset was the only way one could survive this kind of extremity, contradicting his own ideas, solely to show that within certain extreme circumstances social interaction and humanness is a must for survival.

As like in class discussion we have looked at death and how different groups view the rituals surrounding it, I believe depending on the persons own circumstances how one lives, or dies can be scrutinized. For example, when looking at some Asian cultures the elderly will not handle the death of a child, as hierarchy plays such a large role in this culture. We may look at these traditions and place our own judgement on them but until we are placed in one’s circumstances, we cannot hold them to our standards. To say that this culture lacks humanness is to say that their traditions or believes are not valid. Needing to truly understand where a parent or grandparent is coming from and to know how they feel about the death of that loved one may be just as distraught and upset as any other culture, the actions may just play out differently. Then we have cultures like Buddhism that believes the body must be untouched for a period of time and allow the clear light of death to be present; many may see this as an odd tradition or disrespectful, leaving a body for days or longer. Death and dying and surviving are large pieces in our cultures and how we determine what is right and what is wrong between our culture and others is one that no one can answer. Until we are in that specific extreme circumstance, we do not know what our true feelings and or actions will be.

This book shows a great deal on insight into how dying is more than just a moment(s) in time but rather how we chose to live through that process. My thought on how Des Pres shows great relation between living and not just surviving is that many would be place in extreme circumstances and just survive, rather than keeping their humanness and truly living with the circumstances they are in. Not to say that just surviving is not a great triumph in itself. This book gave me a new outlook on living, though most of the content and stories revolve around horrific details of death camps, to not just go through each day as another day but genuinely appreciate your circumstances. Knowing that life doesn’t always make accommodations and being uncomfortable is sometimes a way of growing one’s self.

Overall, this book has brought a full circle to the concept of death and dying, with survival and living life with full human compassion. When you are looking at death, no matter the process, you almost always reflect on your life and how it was lived, I believe we should look at being humans above all else to truly feel like we survived life and what it through at us. Not only how we act individually but as a social cog, to help others and gain a better survival for us all, knowing ultimately, we are preserving the future society.

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Review Of The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
“Review Of The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Review Of The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
Review Of The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Feb 1]. Available from:
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