Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora

If you’re seeking a Holocaust survivor’s memoir with a profound philosophical or poetic statement on the reasons six million Jews and many millions of other unlucky souls were slaughtered, and why a person like myself survived the Nazi camps, you’ve opened the wrong book. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reason, or if I even believed there is a reason, I’m still alive. As far as I’m concerned it was all shithouse luck, which is to say – inelegantly – that I kept landing on the right side of the randomness of life.

Pierre Berg, from his Foreword, Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora

Scheisshaus Luck is the memoir of Pierre Berg, a teenage member of the French Resistance who was captured and processed through four Nazi concentration camps as well as a protracted death march. He wrote the book shortly after his emigration to America after the war, but trunked it after a couple of rejection letters. Retired but doing voluntary work at a local cinema, he ran into Brian Brock, who persuaded him into a collaboration on his story. The growth of holocaust denial made it imperative that Berg have his say: ‘Those morons couldn’t tell you what continent Germany is on,’ Berg snarls, ‘and they exalt a coward who committed suicide after ordering brainwashed youths to their slaughter on the barricaded streets of Berlin.’

Berg’s description of life in the death camps is vivid and harrowing. The executions. The gassing. The selections. The disease. The dry, terrible pragmatism of survival. The way that inmates end up collaborating with the system; the way that hunger reduces one’s horizons to a pinprick. Berg witnesses two starving inmates eat liver straight from the corpse. He avoids being hanged by virtue of a clerical error. He sees dead women thrown into rivers, their bodies stuffed with eels to weigh them down. It’s brutal and horrific beyond human imagination, and yet it happened. No matter how many testimonials we read, there is no catharsis – the mind reels back every time.

Yet Berg’s story stands out even in survivor literature. One reason for this is Berg’s humour. He says the camp made him subhuman, but it never took Berg’s ferocious wit or his remorseless cynicism. It feels disrespectful and blasphemous to say this, but Scheisshaus Luck reads like Blackadder set in a concentration camp. Berg is disarmingly honest, sexually acute, often self-deprecating, and has an eye for irony and coincidence.

When a Kapo tells Berg that his shirt is filthy, he responds: ‘How observant. I had worked and slept in it for over a month.’ To another official who asks the name of the man who tattooed the number into Berg’s arm, the author replies: ‘He didn’t bother to sign his masterpiece.’ Witnessing a male Kapo rape a young boy, Berg comments: ‘The SS really needed to switch the colour of his triangle.’

All great comedy is deadly serious, and laughter is often a weapon against totalitarianism. In Monowitz Berg sees inmates laughing with the noose around their necks with the guards shouting: ‘Lachen verboten! Lachen verboten!’ It is the very definition of gallows humour.

Berg’s wit and defiance are at their strongest when he deals directly with Nazism. From the SS’s ‘ludicrously stringent regulations’ to ‘the brownish water the Germans had the audacity to call soup’ he writes of Hitler and the Nazis never with fear, but always with a pulsing anger and a deep, lacerating contempt. Drafted as a camp machinist, Berg delights in sabotaging the weapons he is working on. It’s love for his lost Stella that gets him through the camps, but it is also hate, and a steel resolution not to – in Berg’s phrase – let his bones stoke their fires. But defiance can be gentle, too: Berg and Stella manage to make love in Drancy, despite the puritan regime; Stella tells Berg, in a particularly moving scene, that she is happy not to die a virgin.

Another shining quality of the book is Berg’s resounding unbelief. Throughout his endurance, he remains an ‘atheist red triangle’. Having finally escaped, and sheltering with a religious couple, he responds to an invitation to church with: ‘No disrespect, but four horses couldn’t drag me there. The clergy of all religions make a good living selling you a hereafter that they have no proof exists.’ The dialogue is reminiscent of Primo Levi’s maxim: why change the rules of the game just because you are losing? Berg’s interlocutor, Mrs Novak, tells him his soul will burn in hell: Berg might have responded, like Terry Pratchett, that it had already had a lot of practice.

Scheisshaus Luck manages to be both grinding in its bleakness and compulsively readable. As far as it’s possible without having lived through it, Berg lets you see the reality of Europe near the end of the war, with the SS fighting to maintain the camp’s evil symmetry in the midst of a crumbling Nazi infrastructure. Berg often finds himself hiding from Allied bombing raids while cheering on the pilots. The strongest part of the book comes after Berg’s eventual escape, because by this time you’re punching the air for him and also because he describes the carnage of Europe so beautifully: Soviet tanks in tiny villages, Nazi officials scrambling for expropriated goods, the marching refugees, the fragments of human lives.

Gripping and lyrical, Scheisshaus Luck is a powerful corrective to the bullshit and moral equivalence that is beginning to congeal around contemporary discussions of the Holocaust. It is also a paean to the strength of the human spirit and its will, even in the darkest times, to get to a state ‘where we can live again and love.’

Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora, Pierre Berg and Brian Brock, Amacom 2008

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