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Kren, G. (1990). Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, by Elie A. Cohen, translated from the Dutch by M.H. Braaksma, Free Association Books, 1988, xxiv + 295 pages, pb £9.95. Free Associations, 1U(20):215-219.

(1990). Free Associations, 1U(20):215-219

Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, by Elie A. Cohen, translated from the Dutch by M.H. Braaksma, Free Association Books, 1988, xxiv + 295 pages, pb £9.95

Review by:
George Kren

The author, a Dutch Jewish physician, after a stay at the transit camp in Westerbork, was sent to Auschwitz where he worked as a prisoner physician. His wife and child were killed, while he survived. In his personal memoir, The Abyss,1 he provides a critical self-examination of the actions which permitted him to survive. In the new Introduction to this work he remarks: ‘I suffer from feelings of guilt about things I have done under unimaginable conditions, while the perpetrators, the criminal SS, the murderers of Jews, don't have these feelings of guilt’ (p. xx). The term ‘survivor guilt’ has now become an accepted part of the psychiatric vocabulary; it did not exist in 1952 when Elie Cohen wrote the work under review, for which the University of Utrecht awarded him the degree of Doctor of Medical Science.2 Some prisoner doctors had stepped beyond the bounds of the permissible in their actions in order to save themselves. Bruno Bettelheim succinctly indicts Miklos Nyiszli for his collaboration with the SS. Nyiszli helped the SS in their experimentation on human beings, and perverted his calling by joining those who have aptly been called ‘doctors of infamy’.3 Given Cohen's self-accusations it is important to state that he never participated in medical experiments, nor was he a collaborator.

In contrast to the memoir, in Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp the personal experiences of the author are subordinated to a systematic discussion of the concentration camp system. It is clear, however, that these provide the basis for the critical judgements found throughout the book. For example, speaking of the food rations Cohen writes that ‘In reality things were, however, far worse.

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