Naked among Wolves (Nackt Unter WÖLfen)

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NAKED AMONG WOLVES (Nackt unter Wölfen)

Novel by Bruno Apitz, 1958

Bruno Apitz was a socialist activist from adolescence on. As such, he experienced jail for the first time during World War I, then in the Weimar Republic, and again for most of the Third Reich. It was his experience in the Nazi prisons and camps in Colditz and Sachsenburg (1933), Waldheim (1934-37), and Buchenwald (1937-45) that provided the material for his most successful work, Naked among Wolves (1958; Nackt unter Wölfen ).

When he came to write the book in the 1950s, Apitz was a socialist living in a restrictive socialist Germany. The German Democratic Republic subscribed to the doctrine of socialist realism in its narrowest Zhdanovian interpretation. The tenets of socialist realism entailed the promotion of revolutionary socialism, which was portrayed optimistically and was future oriented. In socialist realist literature, moreover, one avoided all experimentation (formalism) and psychological subtlety. Stylistically, socialist realism demanded, above all, clarity, accessibility, and readability. Apitz fulfilled all these criteria admirably.

Naked among Wolves is set in Buchenwald. Although it relies on its author's own experiences and is based on fact, Apitz freely invented and embellished his material—he wrote as a novelist, not as an historical chronicler. In the last weeks of the war a Jewish child is smuggled into the camp during the chaos as Jews and other prisoners were evacuated west from Polish camps by cattle cars and forced marches. The presence of such a child, hidden in the camp, endangers the resistance that is soon to be put into action by the ILK, or international camp committee. The leadership of the ILK is split between those who take the humane view and wish to save a life, a Jewish life, and those who see the child as an impediment—once the SS learns of the hidden Jew, they will turn the camp upside down and thus discover the arms that are to be used in the imminent uprising.

The German camp personnel is also split. Some hard-liners, prepared to fight to the end and implement Nazi doctrine rigorously, want to use the child to locate the resisters and murder them. Others, seeing the impending end and anticipating defeat, fear for their lives and wish to use what they see as an opportunity to appear more humane than they actually are. As it turns out, the child soon unites the camp's inmates—ILK members and non-members alike. Solidarity thus prevails, and, as the American liberators approach, the revolt takes place and the camp is liberated from within.

The plot is simple but full of tension. There are unexpected developments, mysteries that long remain unsolved, and graphic descriptions of camp life. The Nazi policy of appointing prisoners to organize the day-to-day routine of the camp (kitchen, infirmary, electrical installations, etc.) also serves to provide the prisoners with information and opportunities as they prepare their uprising. The novel is never dull, and the reader is rapidly drawn into the action, eagerly awaiting each new development.

The language and syntax are simple and clear. The persons, although types rather than fully rounded characters, are believable, if exaggerated. The socialist message is patent throughout but falls short of being irksome. The symbolism is largely limited to the child, who signifies life, hope, and the future and who is a strong unifying factor that inspires unity and self-effacement.

Naked among Wolves is an early German camp novel. The camp, however, is not an extermination camp for the Jews, who, apart from the child, are almost entirely absent. The assumed solidarity of socialist and Jewish victimhood, as it is portrayed, for example, by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk in her Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land , is not part of the novel (and was certainly not a reality in Buchenwald). Furthermore, the resistance itself has little in common with Jewish resistance, which operated, whenever it did, under totally different conditions and constraints. As such, the novel's importance is less as an example of Holocaust literature and more as a novel of concentration camp life written by a socialist in a form appropriate for his communist homeland.

—David Scrase