Those three words, seared into the mind, bring a pain I cannot define. I want to reach out and feel the cold iron letters, erasing their significance ~ “Arbeit Macht Frei”
The naïveté when I first read this motto ~ “Work sets you free” still burns. I stepped through the gate into my new home at Dachau, holding fast to this false promise of hope. Hope because hard work and quality were where I hung my hat.
I’ve since learned.
The cold today still gnaws at me within my bones, the chill a constant reminder of Dachau. I adjust my covers fully aware the feeling will never leave, so I lay quietly, shivering. One thought creeping around my mind like a serpent, a repeated whisper: “give up, give in.”
My mind drifts back to those first months. Every piece of my body ached, the world seemingly dissolved around me; work was not setting me free, it was killing me.
“You do what they say, nothing more and nothing less. Be invisible.” Shukhov, my bunkmate smiled to me as we gathered our mess tins for breakfast. “There is no life to be had here. The sooner you understand this, the better off you’ll be.”
It had been the worst months of my life and I was fading fast. Shukhov took me in and taught me to survive. “Giving up is inevitable, and in prison, it is an absolute necessity. If you remain stubborn, they will break you.”
Not wanting to hear those words, I ignore him but asked, “What do you mean, giving up is inevitable?”
“Everyone gives up at some point, be it in life or in prison. For young ones like yourself it is difficult to grasp, but as you get older, giving up gets easy.” Shukhov’s toothless grin was followed by a push toward the mess hall as he continued his speech:
“As you age, you realize what’s happening: life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand. It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize there’s nothing you can do. You’re going under. Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand… the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, instead prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible. That’s what giving up is.”
– “On Giving Up” by The Casual Theorist
“Give up…give in.”
I began to ponder these words as I stumbled down a blurred hallway, my eyes quickly swollen shut from a slew of punches, a result of bumping into an SS guard. I fought with the idea of giving up before realizing: Dachau is the worst kind of quicksand, and fighting it would kill me.
“A piece of advice you best take to heart,” Müller, a warder and past friend from my neighborhood whispered to me. “Do not give anyone a reason to draw blood…you will need every drop if you expect to make it in here.”
His meaning echoed the words of Shukhov, “Give up…give in.”
I roll out of bed, put the coffee pot on and wonder aloud if people today share the attitude of “giving up” as written by The Casual Theorist, the rationale of short-term thinking to take an easy way out.
Are people unknowingly casting their freedoms away when they choose to slide by with as little effort as possible?
Around me, I see it everywhere. Eat crap. Watch crap. Drink crap. Talk crap. Gone are aspirations to seek a purer life. Instead, we quickly get older and life becomes more difficult. Giving up is a chronic habit. We’ve become too lazy to seek and pursue quality in life.
The whistle on my coffee pot goes off, snapping me out of thought and I slowly get up and shuffle my way to pour a cup. There is a certain art to making a great cup of coffee, art mastered over the years ~ the aroma, the steam, and the color moving together as it flows from the pot to my mug.
A sign of quality, and it takes me back to a time when I first discovered the importance of this word.
The darkness of solitary confinement had continued my free-fall. I wondered if I would make it through another day, and then as Müller clicked my peephole shut, it did not close. A blinding beacon of light sliced through the darkness.
Drawing myself up, I saw in the distance the simple beauty of broken rays of sunshine filtering down through a tree. With imagination, I saw tomorrow and my eyes filled with tears.
For the first time in Dachau, I saw a quality of life I had forgotten. Now giving up had meaning. It had a partner: quality.
The Statue of the Unknown Prisoner holds power, the resemblance to Shukhov is uncanny, the words just as wise.
Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung ~ ‘An honor to those who died, a warning to those who live’
Dachau was filled with days upon days upon days of nothingness. Bitter cold, fear and constant hunger left just enough energy by lights-out to crawl back into bed and do it all over again tomorrow.
Such times were deafening and defeating, but there was an unknown consequence to such days as well. My mind became more in-tune to the smallest pieces of quality. Something simple and pure, and while it may have lasted only a few seconds, it felt like a victory.
This instinctive, private search for meaning was feed by an invisible curiosity. It kept me sane. The misery of cold and hunger blinded the spirit, but when quality arrived, it made the day almost happy.
Shukhov lit a small cigarette and spoke thoughtfully, “I’ve figured out we have roughly ten minutes in the morning another ten at night…the prisoner’s own time.” He looked out the window at the guards getting ready for roll call, and Shukhov added, “All remaining hours belong to the camp.”
Grabbing his bag, he kept talking. “A ridiculously short time, but it never surprises me the quality we can fit in.” He got up from the bench tapping my shoulder to hurry up, “a fine balance we keep. Prison life will not give you time to do anything but give up.”
I laugh at this thought. In such an environment, the modern mind couldn’t function, but then again the mind can be so strangely efficient when pushed to the brink.
Finishing my cup of coffee, I begin to prepare my oatmeal, more out of habit than hunger. I no longer feel hunger, just a rationalization to supply fuel for my body.
It leads me to wonder, “How could anyone ever understand the true meaning of hunger…?”
Meals. “Every day, my mind was sharply focused on each spoonful. Slowly chewing even if there was nothing to chew, just moving it around my mouth trying to trick my stomach into thinking it will be getting more than it actually would…” A story I often share when asked.
As for a story I never share: if you had offered me a choice between “my meal” or “freedom from Dachau” ~ I’d have chosen the meal. Every time. We all would have.
Hunger. Humility. Dachau demanded it.
The dullness of a day steals time until years feel like it is all just one long day. Prison life cannot help but defeat a mind, staring at the hours of nothing. I use to wonder if the mind could ever find its way back into reality.
I look around me today and I see the same. People mindlessly giving up, allowing the dullness of a day to stretch out into years.
Pulling my collar tight, I shiver with the oncoming cold.
Cold mornings always woke me early. The few extra minutes before reveille were precious. I never wasted a thought for a few more minutes of sleep, too obvious. Instead, I began my plan to make it through the day: the hope for a few more grains of oats at the bottom of the bowl, an honest cut of bread and if possible a drag on a cigarette before the workday began.
Never forgetting I belonged to Dachau whose only goal was to break me.
A cold breeze sweeps over my face – a breeze I know comes not from the cool winds outside my window but from a distant memory a lifetime ago.
In Dachau, the human trait of giving up served me well. I survived and I began to understand the balance between “accepting the inevitable and giving up” and its silent partner, “the inevitable curiosity of quality which leads to the pursuit of life.”
The balance is dynamic, evolving as we age. Every morning we reconciled within our minds ~ weighing two thoughts: which shall I focus on today?