The Human Species (L'espéce Humaine)

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THE HUMAN SPECIES (L'Espéce humaine)

Memoir by Robert Antelme, 1947

In The Human Species (1992; L'Espéce humaine, 1947) Robert Antelme traces his life as a kommando at Gandersheim, a particularly brutal subcamp of Buchenwald, then on a death march, and finally at Dachau's liberation. As he writes, the "horror in it is not gigantic. At Gandersheim there was no gas chamber, no crematorium. The horror there was darkness, absolute lack of any kind of landmark, solitude, unending oppression, slow annihilation. The motivation underlying our struggle could only have been a furious desire, itself almost always experienced in solitude; a furious desire to remain me, down to the very end." And this is the theme of the book: the nature of being human and its "indivisible oneness."

Throughout The Human Species this refrain is repeated. Toward the end Antelme writes that, even though he and his fellow inmates look like animals, they are human and "the distance separating us from another species is still intact." The Holocaust tests "the variety of relationship between men" and "at the point where we approach our limits" appears, for Antelme, the realization that "there are not several human races, there is one human race" and it is "because we're men like them that the SS will finally prove powerless before us." Even death reaffirms this since "the worst of victims cannot do otherwise than establish that, in its worst exercise, the executioner's power cannot be other than one of the powers men have, the power of murder. He can kill a man, but he can't change him into something else." This is similar to David Rousset 's leftist understanding of the Holocaust as a resource to stimulate a fight against capitalism and fascism and to other readings that attempt to redeem or, in Lawrence Langer's phrase, "pre-empt the Holocaust." The book is full of human actions, and Antelme finds proof of his thesis and the basis of resistance in the most human of functions—eating, defecating, and urinating.

This theme is heightened throughout the text by the constant discussion of power. The kapo s in the main were not political prisoners, with some sense of solidarity, but rather criminals, "murders, thieves, swindlers, sadists and black marketeers" who reveled in their (relative) power and privilege. He describes the process of becoming a kapo and the actions of bad and corrupt kapo s. Yet their humanity (not in the sense of "being humanitarian" but in the sense of "being a human being") comes through.

National identity also is a ground for Antelme's resistance. A rail car from the SNCF (the French national railway) raises the spirits of his colleagues: "the wind which wafts the west into our faces doublecrosses the SS, so do the four letter SNCF which he didn't even notice." And at liberation, when the prisoners are commanded in German, they shout, "You sons of bitches, we're free! Talk to us in French!" Part of being human seems to be, for Antelme, the sense of national belonging. In the final pages, this is both affirmed and transcended as a Russian survivor passes him a cigarette and they talk in their common language, German. "Ja" is the last word of the text, an affirmation, in German, of the unity of the human race, and yet, at the same time, a reminder of the attempt to destroy this unity.

Despite his argument, Antelme is also aware that the camps are a world away. He beings his account by suggesting that "no sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it. And then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable." These "stifling words," however, remain a call for human unity.

—Robert Eaglestone

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The Human Species (L'espéce Humaine)

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