The Complete Lives of Camp People: Colonialism, Fascism, Concentrated Modernity

The Complete Lives of Camp People: Colonialism, Fascism, Concentrated Modernity

by Rudolf Mrázek

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In The Complete Lives of Camp People Rudolf Mrázek presents a sweeping study of the material and cultural lives of twentieth-century concentration camp internees and the multiple ways in which their experiences speak to the fundamental logics of modernity. Mrázek focuses on the minutiae of daily life in two camps: Theresienstadt, a Nazi “ghetto” for Jews near Prague, and the Dutch “isolation camp” Boven Digoel—which was located in a remote part of New Guinea between 1927 and 1943 and held Indonesian rebels who attempted to overthrow the colonial government. Drawing on a mix of interviews with survivors and their descendants, archival accounts, ephemera, and media representations, Mrázek shows how modern life's most mundane tasks—buying clothes, getting haircuts, playing sports—continued on in the camps, which were themselves designed, built, and managed in accordance with modernity's tenets. In this way, Mrázek demonstrates that concentration camps are not exceptional spaces; they are the locus of modernity in its most distilled form.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478007364
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/17/2020
Series: Theory in Forms
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Rudolf Mrázek is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of several books, including A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of its Intellectuals, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Jews (as Hitler defined the Jews) were registered and called up to the camp. Each man, woman, and child was permitted a fifty-kilo piece of luggage and a handbag or a backpack, a carry-on. Everything was to be chosen with a care unprecedented in modern times. The things of the life before were to be squeezed into trunks, handbags, and backpacks, and into pockets, too. All the modernity (as far as the modern had developed at the time and at the moment of each Jew's life) had to be stomped, crammed in. Clothes for all seasons. Emigrant luggage, but as never before.

"One stuffs in," Mrs. Thea Höchster, going to Theresienstadt, wrote later in her camp diary, "and there is so little time. Woolens sure, but what about shoes, and comb! All is too little, and all is too much when in a wink, one has to go."

The German authorities calling up the Jewish women in the Netherlands to get ready for Theresienstadt advised them to take shoes "that would stand up to country walks." Never before had vestment — clothes, shoes, and hats — mattered so much. Etty Hillesum, one of the Dutch women about to go (and die), wrote in her diary on August 23, 1941, still waiting in Amsterdam, "Yesterday afternoon when I went to buy S.'s cheese and as I walked through the beautiful South Amsterdam, I felt like an old Jewess, wrapped up tightly in a cloud. ... I felt so warm, protected, and safe."

What Ms. Hillesum meant by "cloud" was the shroud of the moment and for the season: "The first time a little boy goes to school," according to a Jewish tradition in some places, "he is carried entirely swathed in his father's tallit to prevent him from seeing impure things."

At the camps, the manner of dress continued to evolve as it had through the centuries. However, dress became, perhaps finally, perhaps ultimately, but certainly as never before, "the most energetic of all symbols." Truly modern and dynamic. "Why are you so untidy?" became an essential and often fatal question.

The Jews on their way to the camps and thus to Theresienstadt, to save a space in their luggage, "wrapped themselves" (Hillesum's words) in three, even four layers of clothes, be it winter or be it summer. "Men dragged themselves with their lumpen of clothes," and they were "dressed 'for the road.'" "The Jews always have the best clothes," was the white anti-Semitic wisdom of Europe since as soon as the Jews began to wear modern clothing.

"Everything new I had, I put on myself"; Petr Ginz, a fourteen-year-old "half-Jewish" boy, recalled packing "three pairs of socks, two shirts, a sweater, two pairs of trousers, and a winter coat." "I'm telling you," a man advised his friends on the night before going, "you should take your best clothes and the best underwear, so that they'll last."

Theresienstadt did not have a direct rail connection in the first months of its existence. It was three kilometers from the nearest train station in Bohušovice, and the Jews had to walk, "topped by heavy winter coats, carrying knapsacks on their backs and suitcases in their hands." They were watched by the Czech inhabitants of a little village they were passing on their way. "A man's mind," Honoré de Balzac wrote a century before, "can be known by the manner in which he carries his walking stick."

Younger women taken to Theresienstadt watched the elderly women going. Nava Shean, one of the younger ones who later became a famous actress in Israel, recalled, "Their [the older women's] clothes, expensive and old-fashioned, looked like for a masked ball on the morning after. Hats with ostrich feathers falling sideways — and umbrellas! Long fanciful umbrellas with ruffles." After a few days in the camps, she added, "Now, the umbrellas are used to drive away flies."

The crucial moment was that of stomping in, squeezing, closing the lid, concentration, and this is no pun. Franz Kafka, a writer and a Prague Jew, escaped the Nazis only because he died before they got to him; he would surely have gone to Theresienstadt. Yet, without having to go, he knew as much about the camps as anyone. In a diary entry of October 28, 1911, he described a dream he had had the night before about himself; his best friend, Max Brod; and Max's brother Otto (Otto later went to Theresienstadt and perished in Auschwitz). The three men in Kafka's dream were about to board a train: "I dreamed that Max, Otto, and I had the habit of packing our trunks only when we reached the railroad station. There we were, carrying our shirts, for example, through the main hall to our distant trunks. Although this seemed to be a general custom, it was not a good one in our case, especially since we had begun to pack only shortly before the arrival of the train. Then we were naturally excited and had hardly any hope of still catching the train, let alone getting good seats."

* * *

In the Dutch Indies, a camp called Boven Digoel was newly designed in 1926, in a panic, for the Indonesian rebels who had attempted a Communist revolution.

The Boven Digoel camp was as far from Europe as one could imagine, especially at the time. It was even endlessly far from Java and Sumatra, where the rebellion happened and from which most of the internees came. The camp was set up in Dutch New Guinea. The journey from Java by ship took four weeks, and the internees, if they so desired, could take their families with them. They were less restricted than the Theresienstadt people would be, but their turn came as a rule on very short notice, too, often after spending months in prison in the place where they were arrested. As they packed their stuff, they also knew next to nothing about where they were going, and they did not know at all how long they would be gone or if they would ever come back.

Like the Jews of Theresienstadt, the camp people of the Indies had to pack "for all seasons." Many were Communists and many were Muslims, and the vestments they packed became, of a sort, their tallit. They, too, readied their clothes to maintain their bearing. According to one of the ships' records, now in the Boven Digoel archives in Jakarta, internee Toepin's "trunk no. 8" contained "clothes and other stuff," and "trunk no. 9" "clothes, sarongs, and shawls." Internee Ngalimoen, traveling on the same ship, traveled with "trunk no. 12: clothes and other personal items."

Krarup Nielsen was a Danish journalist and travel-adventure writer who somehow managed to convince the Dutch authorities to let him travel with the first ship that took the Boven Digoel internees to the camp. The people he went with endured the four weeks on the sea, squeezed in — stomped in — the airless, hot, and often widely swaying hold of the ship, or on the open deck, sundeck it might be called, exposed to tropical heat and rains. Nielsen described the internees as they reached the camp, and mainly through their clothes

They embark from the ship. More than half of the men are clothed the European way, and certainly in what they suppose are city clothes. They have slack, felt, or straw hats on, some wear black silk bonnets as Muslims now do, and I could see many wearing Western shoes. As a whole, they make a contrast with the dull-brownish-yellow fatigues of the Dutch soldiers who watch over the embankment. The internees walk down on the plank from the ship. In the boat that will take them from the ship to shore, they are seated next to each other, each holding a small trunk or a briefcase on his lap; some even have an umbrella stuck under their arm. The guards lean on the ship railing and gaze down at the scene in silence.

Even to a seasoned journalist and adventure writer this was clearly a significant story, and there was much of the camp already in it.

The description stuck. Still after seven years, by which time the camp was already well established, another author, Dr. Schoonheyt, a medical officer assigned to Boven Digoel, recalled the same scene as it evidently reached him through the chain of memory. Again, but even more so, the internees presented themselves and were seen "dressed to the nines." Through the years, they became more of camp people, and their clothes, in the doctor's description, more significant. The internee's "cloud and shroud" became more garish. Dr. Schoonheyt's description even betrays some of the unease of the observer. "They were clothed impeccably European," Dr. Schoonheyt amplified what Krarup Nielsen wrote:

They flashed socks with shouting stripes, neat half-shoes, and their hats were definitely knock-out and worn as conspicuously as possible. Of course, the briefcases, the penholders, and the razor-sharp pencils in the breast pockets of their jackets were impossible to overlook; they were no doubt indispensable to the camp. The penholders especially made a glaring presence as the Communists put their feet on the land to engage in a battle with the primeval forest.

Neither Theresienstadt nor Boven Digoel was Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi camps of death, and neither was the Devil's Island of Cayenne, the notorious penal colony of the French colonial empire. The Jews in Theresienstadt and the Communists in Boven Digoel, for one thing, could keep and wear the clothes they managed to bring in with them. Through the camps' existence, the clothes in the camp remained as precious as when packed, and gained even more value with the years in the camps. With each passing day in the camp, the clothes became a little more of a fashion and of the season, more concentrated, more sublime, more than normally insistent on keeping and heightening form, in spite of everything adverse to it, and because of everything, more of a cloud and shroud — in exposing nakedness.

Philip Mechanicus was a Dutch Jewish journalist who wrote a diary in the transit camp of Westerbork waiting for transport either to Theresienstadt or to Auschwitz: "One of my neighbors has brought a wardrobe fit for a world tour; it hides three bedsteads. Three or four suits and a few coats hang neatly on coat hangers from the bar of the topmost bed, just as if they were in a wardrobe. When I climb into my bed and get down from it one of the suits or coats always falls to the floor."

When internee Djaidin, alias Mardjoen, died in Boven Digoel, the authorities of the camp recorded what he left behind: "One rattan trunk (old) containing one neck scarf, one red hat (old), three head scarfs, one sarong (black), one sarong (of Pekalongan style), one batik headdress, two woman's jackets, one man's jacket with buttons (old), one chintz undershirt (old), one white cotton undershirt (old), one long batik undershirt (old), one napkin (torn), one handkerchief white, one belt (new)." When internee Soewita, alias Soeparman, died in Boven Digoel, he left behind "two open jackets (no buttons), three pairs of pajamas trousers, one pair of shorts, one pair of white trousers, two shirts, one neck scarf, one sarong, two handkerchiefs."

The Boven Digoel authorities recruited some internees for a special camp police, Rust en Orde Bewaarders, ROB [Calm and Order Guards]. It was the duty of the ROB agents to walk through the camp three times a day, and in a special police book record everything significant. On Sunday, May 23, 1937, at 10:15 in the morning, ROB agent Zainoeddin, for instance, wrote down a list of items reported as stolen from an internee: "One dressy shirt, one ordinary shirt, two sport socks, two pairs of shorts (one with stripes, one black)."

In Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Jerusalem, I saw a photograph of a Theresienstadt street from the time of the camp. There is clearly visible a sign, like those used on shops in Central Europe through the 1920s and 1930s, Herrenbekleidung [Gent's Clothes]. This particular sign might have been a fake installed specifically for a visit of a high official on inspection — a Potemkin village site. But the internees were buying clothes in Theresienstadt, and there were Herrenbekleidung stores and ladies clothes, too, and also shop windows. Only, one could never pass by the clothes shop windows in the camp as one might a store in the outside before.

"Nobody walks here in clogs," wrote an elderly Dutch Jewish internee, Gabriel Italie, in his Theresienstadt diary on September 7, 1944. On December 22, 1944, Italie noted, "On the ninth of this month ... I 'bought' a set of suit and a pair of working shoes. The suit is not new, of course, but is quite decent." Pavel Weiner, a thirteen-year-old boy from Prague, wrote in his Theresienstadt diary, "Sunday, January 14, 1945 ... We stand in line in the freezing weather to get some gloves. We have to stand outside, and I don't care for it a bit. I bang at the door and it is a miracle that I don't get into a fight with the saleswoman. My mother is angry at me for my poor behavior." Philipp Manes, an older Theresienstadt internee, wrote in his diary, "A distribution site was opened in the fall of 1943. One can get there mainly the clothes left by the deceased. ... From time to time there is also stuff available from confiscations or from the shops on the outside that was bought and brought into the camp by the SS."

The best clothes of those left by the dead were being sent to "the needy" in Germany. Nevertheless, "the rest remained in the camp." The "distribution centers," and the "clothing stores" in the camp (a special camp currency was issued for the purpose), like the trunks packed by the people as they were leaving for the camps, were concentrated modern. They could bring as never before the thrilling experience of luck: "When one was lucky to lay his hand on an ordinary working-man overall, he considered himself one who hit the bank."

There was a clothing market in Boven Digoel as well, which, like the one in Theresienstadt, was exclusive by its being of a camp. Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, a white-colonial daily, published an article about Boven Digoel on January 15, 1931, reporting, "All clothes in the camp are exceedingly expensive." As in Theresienstadt, what had been brought in was cared about at the greatest cost, and what might be left behind by the dead could be put up for sale. The items left behind after the death of Mohamad Saleh, alias Marip, were sold on credit on October 16, 1937: "One can buy (or get on credit): one jacket (khaki-drill) for f [florin] 0.50; ... one jacket (white) for f0.80; one jacket (tricot) for f0.80; three shirts (short sleeves) for f0.70; one jacket (for home) for f0.30; two sarongs for f1.76; one night cap for f0.50."

Clothes might be sent to the camps by a relative or a friend, with some restrictions, and stuff could even be mail-ordered to Boven Digoel. Keng Po, a Chinese newspaper in the Indies, published "A Letter from Boven Digoel" in its issue of October 4, 1927, in which internee Kartoatmodjo is quoted "asking his family to send him a pair of shorts." Few internees could afford better. Soetan Sjahrir, who came to Boven Digoel in the eighth year of its existence and stayed there just for a year (after 1945 he became the first prime minister of the independent Indonesia), wrote from the camp to his wife who lived in Holland,

Mieske, I need underwear. ... And a pair of pajamas. I have only two sets now, and both are completely worn out. Besides, they are too coarse. I have not many more clothes left on the whole, just one pair of green cotton trousers and another pair of trousers of some sort, rather ancient. I could well use some of the white suits of Tjammie [Sjahrir's brother Sjahsam, living in Holland at the time]. But, to tell you the truth, not really, because most of the time I stay in the house, and then only in pajamas.

In the tropical Indies camp, in the middle of the humid and hot New Guinea jungle, each piece of modern, which meant Western, fashion was sublime, and flagrantly so. A pair of shoes and a jacket was a statement much louder than it ever could have been in modern Europe and modern colony. In the camp, the stakes were higher and the efforts more strenuous. Internee Mohamad Sanoesi sent a mail order to "Shoes Magazine, The New York Company, Weltevreden, Batavia, Java," and to "Shop Singapore, Soerabaja, Java." Internee Mas Soewigno even ordered some pieces of clothing from "Bros. Gerzens Mode" and "Magazine De Bijenkorp, Amsterdam." Internee Kadimin ordered a pair of shoes from "Hen Son Than Shoemaker in Sigli, Aceh, North Sumatra."

There were tailors in Boven Digoel; some of them had practiced their craft before, but few learned it in the camp. Putting patches on trousers, everyday repairing jackets, skirts, blouses, or underwear could easily be made by the internees themselves. Tailors were for custommade clothes. Internee Partoredjo was registered in the camp as "gentlemen's tailor." Internee Ibing "used to be an agent propagandist for the Communist Party" and "used his tailor shop as a hotbed for agitation." Now he was listed as "working as a tailor." Internee Roejani is on record as a "tailor from Serang, Banten, Java." "Uncle Prawito," Mr. Trikoyo, who was a boy in Boven Digoel at the time, told me, "worked in the camp as a specialist in clothes." "Men's tailor, I mean," Trikoyo added.


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Table of Contents

Introduction  1
Part I. Fashion
1. Clothes  11
2.  Beauty Spots  27
3. Pink Bodies  43
4. Sport  72
Part II. Sound
5. Noise  83
6. Voice  91
7. Music  104
8. Radio  119
Part III. Light
9. Clearing  143
10. Enlightenment  169
11. Limelight  189
Part IV. City
12. Blocks  211
13. Streets  239
14. Suburbs  265
Part V. Scattering
15. Nausea  297
16. Escape  319
17. Dust, or Memory  349
Notes  379
Bibliography  451

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