Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp: A Medical and Psychological Study (Het Duitse Concentratiekamp: Een Medische En Psychologische Studie)

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HUMAN BEHAVIOUR IN THE CONCENTRATION CAMP: A MEDICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDY (Het Duitse concentratiekamp: Een Medische en Psychologische studie)

Memoir and Study by Elie Aron Cohen, 1952

Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp: A Medical and Psychological Study was originally written by Elie Aron Cohen as his doctoral thesis in 1952, seven years after his liberation from Ebensee. Although the scientific-sounding title might lead the reader to believe that it is merely a behavioral analysis based upon psychological research per se, it must be emphasized that the study is a result of the author's personal experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camps. As he states in the preface, "When I wrote my doctor's thesis in 1952 … everything I had suffered from in the concentration camps was still vivid in my mind."

Written in Dutch and published in 1954, it was then issued in an English translation in 1988 with a foreword by the British psychoanalyst Dinora Pines as well as a newly written preface by the author. Although Cohen had been a prisoner in various camps, including transport and death camps, as well as on a death march, he states that is his intent to write as objectively as possible, and he succeeds in doing so. The book is meticulously researched and very detailed. It is divided into four major sections: (1) general aspects of the camps; (2) medical aspects, including diseases of the prisoners as well as experiments conducted by Nazi physicians; (3) psychological aspects of the prisoners; and (4) psychological aspects of the SS.

In the first section, in order to acquaint the reader with life in a concentration camp, Cohen discusses general aspects of the camps. He begins by analyzing the differences between three categories of individuals: those who were never in a camp of any sort, those who were in other types of camps, such as prisoner-of-war or labor camps, and those who were in concentration camps themselves. Other topics he covers in this section include a discussion of the hierarchies of prisoners as well as SS personnel and the organization and layout of the camps, much of which is based upon the findings of Eugene Kogon in his book Der SS Staat. Cohen also discusses aspects of extermination, which is amplified by the use of statistics enumerating dates and the numbers of prisoners moved to other camps as well as those who escaped or were released or executed. In this section, which is based upon his own experiences as well as on research from such sources as Ella Lingens-Reiner (Prisoners of Fear ), G.M.Gilbert (Nuremberg Diary ), and Viktor E. Frankl (Ein Psycholog erlebt das K.Z ), Cohen concludes that there remains an emotional gulf between survivors of the concentration camps and those who never experienced imprisonment within them.

The second section is about medical aspects of life in the camps. Cohen focuses on diseases suffered by the prisoners as well as on medical experiments conducted by Nazi physicians. Because he administered care as a physician in the camps, he is able to speak with authority. He describes in detail several of the diseases the prisoners suffered, again providing statistics regarding the numbers of diseases in the camps and the mortality rates. In one part of this section he goes into great detail on the food given to the prisoners, both in the camps and in the ghettos, including data on calories and on the physical effects of chronic malnutrition. He compares malnutrition in the camps to the effects of starvation suffered by American soldiers in Japanese internment camps. One of his findings is that, secondary to malnutrition and starvation, some medical conditions, such as asthma and high blood pressure, seem to go into a stage of remission. In another part of this section Cohen gives details regarding medical experiments. In this he relies upon Miklos Nyiszli (SS Obersturmführer Docteur Mengele ) and others, including Lingens-Reiner and Olga Lengyel , who in the book Five Chimneys wrote about her experiences as a physician in Auschwitz. He also relies to a great extent on testimony given before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1945-46.

The third section deals with psychological aspects of the prisoners, and the fourth section deals with psychological aspects of the SS. Cohen's methodology in examining behavior in the camps is based upon Freudian analysis as set forth in works such as Totem and Taboo, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Ego and the Id, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and Mourning and Melancholia. As regards the prisoners, Cohen finds that there were three psychological stages of adaptation to life in the camps. If the prisoner successfully passed through these stages, barring selection for the gas chambers or other circumstances beyond his control, there was at least some hope for survival.

Cohen analyzes the mental status of both the prisoners and the SS in depth. According to his findings, they were complete opposites. For example, the prisoners had no strong leader with whom they could identify and were in a situation in which their sense of identity gave way to a primal need for sustenance. Thus, they experienced a strengthening of the ego, or sense of their own needs, which resulted in a weakening of the superego. The SS, on the other hand, were following a strong leader and had a strong sense of identity. Their egos, therefore, gave way to their superegos, albeit criminal superegos. As a result, again largely based upon his reading of Freud, Cohen concludes that there was a crowd rather than a group mentality among the prisoners, while the SS, strongly united in its adherence to the state and its policies, had an unwavering group mentality.

Cohen obviously could not cover all aspects of the causes of the Holocaust. He does not mention the influence of socioeconomic factors or of Teutonic mythology on the Nazi mentality. Nevertheless, he fulfills his aim of giving a clear, objective, and well-researched analysis of aspects of and reasons for the human behavior that took place in the concentration camps.

—Diane Plotkin

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Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp: A Medical and Psychological Study (Het Duitse Concentratiekamp: Een Medische En Psychologische Studie)

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