The Absence of Vocabulary: Communicating the Suffering of the Nazi Death Camps

Recall, if you will, the worst day of your life.  Recall the sadness and emptiness felt in the loss of someone close to you.  Imagine the most intense sensation of pain you have ever felt: a broken bone, a separated shoulder, or a serious cut.  Recall now the greatest sense of fear you have experienced: the moment before a car accident or the imminent injury of your child.  Our pain is palpable, and when forced to recollect it, is communicated with deep emotion.  We use words such as sadness, terror, and fear to describe these events in our lives. Yet within the confines of the barbed wire and gas chambers of the Nazi camps, words are wholly insufficient.  These words are reserved for normal pain, but there was nothing normal, nothing human about the experiences of inmates of the camps that allow for the use of the same words we use to describe the pain of our shattered bones and broken hearts.   

For writers such as Primo Levi and Ruth Kluger there is a constant struggle to relay the scenes they recall in a manner that allows the reader to clearly grasp them. Both Levi and Kluger experience an absence of vocabulary, which makes the effort to retell their stories difficult; for what words are there in any language that can allow one to understand the lowest depths of the human condition?  Being aware of the depths reached also carries an overwhelming sense of shame for the survivors.  This shame serves to prevent survivors from picking up the pieces of their lives after liberation and also reminds prisoners of the wordlessness of their condition.  In spite of these difficulties, Levi and Kluger continue to try to share their story, as adequately as possible, in an effort to bear witness to the atrocities they have experienced.  Both Levi and Kluger speak for the millions who perished and whose stories can never be told from their own mouths.


The trip to the Nazi camps, be it from Italy in Levi’s case, Hungary, Poland, France, or another camp, was meant to weaken the passengers by the time they arrived to their final destination.  The trip served as a warning that their humanity was about to be stolen from them. The cattle cars used spoke volumes about how they were seen by their oppressors: “trapped like rats” and a foreshadowing of what was to come when the train came to a halt.  The first twenty- four hours of life as an inmate of a Nazi camp involved the systematic reduction of all forms of personhood until inmates were left as shadows of their former selves.  Levi says of this time:

no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.  Nothing belongs to us any more;  they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.  They will even take away our name.
— Levi, Primo. “On the Bottom" In Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.

The purpose of such reduction is clearly two-fold.  The intent on the part of the captors to strip down inmates of all human features was to make the decision regarding their extermination easier.  A man reduced to less than a man is not viewed any longer as a person, but as an object. When an object loses its value to its master it is easily discarded and replaced with another.  This “pure judgement of utility” simplifies the extermination process of the captor, as there is no human connection tied to the loss of a prisoner.  For the inmates, the loss of their human features is only the beginning of a slow process in which their “dignity and restraint” is also lost. A person with little or no respect for themself has little or no respect for others or their surroundings; as Levi says “he who loses all often easily loses himself.”  Inmates were branded, as if destroying their appearance by removing their hair and clothing was not enough, their names must be taken as well.  Names were replaced by numbers, which indicate when they arrived, their race, and possibly the order in which they will die.  Kluger recalls receiving her tattoo and that her new life will always be branded, and she will always be identified as a witness of this event:

It tells you something about how beaten down and stripped of a sense of self I already was that I thus invented for myself a future based on the experience of the most abysmal humiliation yet, a future where precisely that abyss would appear honourable.”
— Kluger, Ruth. "Death Camp." In Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.

How does one describe the complete and rapid destruction of their identity and sense of self?  Levi realizes at this moment that there are no words that encapsulate the gravity of their condition:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.
— Levi, Primo. "Shame." In The Drowned and the Saved.

Within twenty four hours the life of a prisoner was reduced down from a living, breathing, feeling human being to a tool, marked and identified by their owners and useful only until they can no longer perform, then discarded in a puff of smoke.  As we recall our worst moments, and use the words we know to describe them, it is Levi who reminds us that these are the words of the free:

We say ‘hunger’, we say ‘tiredness’, ‘fear’, ‘pain’, we say ‘winter’ and they are different things.  They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.  If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.
— Levi, Primo. “October 1944.” In Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.

The grave reminder Levi provides is that if the Nazi’s had been victorious in World War II not only would a new world order have been established, but that an entirely new set of words, which would be used to describe immeasurable agony, fear, and suffering, never before present in the world would have supplemented the words we currently use to describe our worst pains and fears.  There are words that were changed by the experience of the Holocaust. Both Kluger and Levi speak of the word “selection”, a seemingly inoffensive word, which earns new meaning in the context of a Nazi camp. The “Selektion” that Kluger and Levi speak of refers to the picking out of prisoners, depending on certain requirements: mainly age as well as their ability to continue to be useful tools in whatever production the camp was employed in.  While in some cases the Selektion meant a new task or job in the camp, it almost always was a selection for extermination, and always was accompanied with an intense fear.  Levi also speaks of the significance of “winter” as a prisoner:

It means that in the course of these months, from October till April, seven out of ten of us will die.  Whoever does not die will suffer minute by minute, all day; every day…Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word.
— Levi, Primo. “October 1944.” In Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.

Winter and selection: words that mean nothing in the day-to-day routines of a normal life, yet when spoken by Levi and Kluger mean the difference between life and death.

How does one re-tell events that are so beyond the realm of normalcy that they illicit discomfort when speaking about them?  The re-telling of personal suffering is not suited to any social scenario. Conversations about being shipped, stripped, branded, and then systematically eliminated are not part of everyday talk.  As Kluger says, these discussions simply do not “fit the framework of social discourse.”  There is no back and forth in a conversation about the Holocaust between a survivor and another party.   Kluger describes a sense of imposing a horrendous story of suffering upon a listener who feels socially obligated to receive the story out of a respect for the suffering which the teller endured:

But people didn’t want to hear about it, or if they did listen, it was in a certain pose, an attitude assumed for this special occasion; it was not as partners in a conversation, but as if I had imposed on them and they were graciously indulging me.
— Kluger, Ruth. "Death Camp." In Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.

Kluger’s story, the stories of other survivors, or the stories of the murdered that cannot be told simply do not fit any conversational scenario beyond academic or official contexts.  A story of being stuck in an elevator cannot be interjected with one of being stuffed and suffocating in a cattle car enroute to your murder. A tattoo shown with pride cannot be compared with being branded and reduced from a person with a name to an object with a number.  Being afraid of the dark cannot be compared to the fear and darkness of the gas chambers in the moments before they turn on the gas and breath escapes you. The struggle Kluger speaks of resides in finding the moments when these conversations become appropriate, and to what can they be compared with:

I am stumbling through the labyrinth of conflicting comparisons and asking the question how we can understand anything if we can’t relate to it.
— Kluger, Ruth. "Death Camp." In Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.

A story that a reader cannot comprehend or relate to is only a story, as if it is a work of fiction to the reader or a movie being watched.  There must be some form of comparison of experience for one to have any sort of ability to relate. The issue in relating to the stories of Kluger and Levi and other survivors is that all comparisons serve to be inadequate.  As a result, the struggle continues to reside in the ability of people engaged in conversations about the Holocaust to truly understand.

The days of liberation also brought with it an overwhelming sense of shame that Levi speaks of.  Liberation, while restoring freedom to prisoners, also restored the realization that these men, women and children had lost everything and now had to reconstruct not only their lives, but also their humanity.  With the opportunity for reflection at hand, Levi speaks of the prisoners who were incapable of forming memories of their experience and attaching words to them:

Coming out of the darkness, one suffered because of the reacquired consciousness of having been diminished.  Not by our will, cowardice, or fault, yet nevertheless we had lived for months and years at an animal level: our days had been encumbered from dawn to dusk by hunger, fatigue, cold and fear, and any space for reflection, reasoning, experiencing emotions was wiped out.
— Levi, Primo. "Shame." In The Drowned and the Saved.

Reflection had taken a backseat to survival, which in the aftermath made their lives in the camps a blank spot in their memory: aware of its existence yet unable to apply description to its horror.  The shame of being completely debased as a human is what remained long after the trials, sentences, and executions of their temporary masters had been concluded. This shame led many to their death by suicide.  Prisoners were overcome with depression incapable of living and being forced to potentially rethink or retell their experience every time the snow fell.

Why do Levi, Kluger and other survivors continue to share their story and the stories of the lost and forgotten?  Surely these are memories that are too painful to be retold. Even the beautiful eloquence of Primo Levi’s writing must have emotional limits when speaking of the death camp experience.  Both authors must fumble for descriptions of events that no words can be applied to in order to enhance one’s understanding of the story. Kluger’s recollection of her mother being punished for disobedience is an example of one of those moments that is almost indescribable for her, yet she summons the strength to recall it regardless.  Levi speaks of bearing witness, albeit an incomplete witness, to the events:

…I survived so that I could bear witness.  I have done so, as best I could, and I also could not have done so; and I am still doing so, whenever the opportunity presents itself
— Levi, Primo. "Shame." In The Drowned and the Saved.

Yet Levi reminds us that the true witnesses of the monstrosity of the Holocaust are not the living and not those who write and speak today about their experience.  The true story of the Holocaust is the millions of men and women who were murdered and the children: whose lives were snuffed out before they ever truly had a chance to begin.  It is the story of things not seen by survivors, yet experienced by millions that Levi and Kluger seek to share; the “third party discourse” that is the stories of the millions of others, which cannot be forgotten as time marches on.  Levi and Kluger act as a proxy for those who have been silenced and cannot tell their own story.  It is the absence of vocabulary which forces us to use the words we know to remember the lost; for what words can be used to describe the horror of the moment that a child began to lose breath in the gas chamber?  As inadequate as they are, they must be used so we never forget.