Psychology of Victims

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Psychology of Victims

When one enters a new situation, one looks for familiar signposts to provide direction for the appropriate adaptive behavior. However, the concentration camp was a universe that had never before been encountered or imagined. Because of the camp's incomparable nature, the inmate's initial reaction on arrival was generally one of disorientation. The Nazis' deliberate strategy of having transports arrive in the middle of the night, clubbing prisoners out of the cattle cars into the blinding glare of spotlights, and terrorizing them by the sounds and sight of vicious barking dogs added to this disorientation.

Those who were not selected for death on arrival were immediately stripped of their individual identity. All inmates had their body hair shaved, were handed striped uniforms, and given a number to replace a name. Chronic starvation and hard labor soon contributed to a similar appearance. Daily humiliations due to unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and beatings by the guards defined the inmate's existence. This degradation was purposeful as it reduced prisoners to an animal-like state, reinforcing the belief in their captors that they were, indeed, subhuman and deserving of such treatment. In general, Jews from Eastern European locations who had already endured a prolonged period of extreme deprivation were able to adapt more quickly and effectively to the camp's hardships than those arriving from Western Europe, where persecution had not been as severe prior to their deportation.

Inmates were subjected to recurrent episodes of terror. At the appel (roll call) each morning, selections were made to determine who would be killed and who would be spared. Inmates were continually exposed to the beatings and torture of other prisoners, thereby enhancing their sense of personal vulnerability. The senselessness and arbitrariness of these attacks provoked further feelings of powerlessness and dread. Bizarre and contradictory demands by their captors fueled the inmate's fear and impotence. For example, one had to appear as clean and healthy as possible in order to be allowed to live and provide slave labor for another day, and, yet, the means to achieve that appearance were absent. Inmates frequently resorted to washing themselves with their own urine.

Inmates seized any opportunity to increase their chance of survival. They had to find an edge. Procuring a job indoors might shield one from harsh weather conditions. It became imperative to find some way to augment one's daily rations as the limited amounts of food allotted could not sustain an individual over a prolonged period, particularly in such arduous circumstances. Although some survivors have described an utterly selfish, "every man for himself" mentality in the camps, others have emphasized that they would not have emerged alive had it not been for a relationship they forged with another inmate, which provided physical and emotional sustenance.

The inmate had to remain hyper-alert, in order to both avoid further difficulty and pounce on any possible advantage. Emotional numbing was also adaptive. Allowing oneself to feel sadness or terror would have produced internal weakness and the possibility of paralysis in an environment that required quick thinking and nimble behavior. The expression of rage might have resulted in mortal punishment.

In order to escape the continuous onslaught of humiliation and terror, the prisoner sought succor, and even pleasure, in fantasy. Pleasant fantasies of prewar family life were common. Due to the fact that prisoners were often abruptly separated from family members either during round-ups, deportations, or selections on arrival at the camps, they clung to the hope and fantasy of being reunited with them. Some inmates seized restful moments and retreated into a spiritual frame of mind.

In an environment in which death was omnipresent and life hung by a tenuous thread, the inmates found ways to bolster some sense of control over their fate. Small decisions (e.g., "Should I eat my ration now or save it for later?") took on exaggerated psychological significance. Petty victories (e.g., securing an extra piece of bread) over the concentration camp system were inordinately relished. Small pleasures became magnified.

In order to tolerate their dreadful ongoing condition, inmates had to find powerful reasons to continue. They hoped to reunite with family. They committed themselves to bear witness for all those who could not. They refused to allow the extinction of the Jewish people. A few dreamt of revenge. Some of those who could not find a powerful enough reason to endure the continuous assaults on their person impaled themselves on the camp's electrified fence. Others simply became passive, and this stance doomed them. Fatalism was fatal. The profound apathy of this group could be seen in the familiar, vacant stare of the prisoner who was referred to as a musselman. Inmates immediately recognized such an individual as not long for this world.

Human beings can endure much pain and suffering if they know that a reasonable end point is in sight. For the concentration camp inmate, unfortunately, a Thousand Year Reich seemed increasingly evident. (Indeed, toward the end of the war rumors of the approaching Russian army immediately buoyed spirits in the camp.) To combat this demoralizing factor of indefiniteness, inmates adopted a short perspective of daily survival. To assess the possibility of survival for months or years would have produced demoralization. They also utilized the powerful psychological defense mechanism of denial. Inmates had to deny the overwhelming odds against their survival. "If I keep working and do not bring attention to myself, I will survive," the inmate repeatedly intoned.

Even after one survived the initial life-or-death selection on arrival, the concentration camp system of hard labor, meager rations, and horrific conditions was designed to kill that same inmate within a relatively brief period of time. In the end certain personal qualities—resourcefulness, flexibility, vigilance, the ability to make split-second decisions based on little information, physical hardiness—were necessary in order to outlast the tormentors until the day of liberation. Having (or pretending to have) a useful skill helped make one seem momentarily indispensable. But, because opportunities for effecting the environment were so limited, one had to rely, to a great extent, on intra-psychic coping mechanisms such as denial and retreating into fantasy to diminish the horrific impact of one's world. Yet, despite all these necessary personal qualities and coping strategies, survivors will say that the overwhelming, critical factor in determining whether one inmate would die and another would live until liberation was luck: not being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not being capriciously assaulted by a sadistic guard, not being subjected to the mortal whim of your captor, or not being confined to conditions akin to the worst in hell. This realization of the capriciousness of life and death remained with survivors after liberation and, understandably, impacted their post-Holocaust approach to life and view of humanity.

SEE ALSO Psychology of Perpetrators; Psychology of Survivors


Améry, Jean (1986). At the Mind's Limit. New York: Schocken.

Hass, Aaron (1995). The Aftermath: Living with the Holocaust. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Levi, Primo (1959). Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Macmillan.

Levi, Primo (1988). The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Summit.

Wiesel, Elie (1958). Night. New York: Bantam.

Aaron Hass

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Psychology of Victims

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