Words like ‘mud’ packed with meaning to survivors

Friday, October 26, 2001 | by

DANIEL J. CHALFEN



JERUSALEM—What does the word "mud" connote? To most people it simply means a soft, wet deposit left on the ground after rain. To Auschwitz survivors, however, "mud" has a far deeper significance.

The camp inmate's day involved moving rapidly from living quarters to the toilets to the soup line; it involved long treks from the camp to the work areas and entailed hours of standing motionless. The people were weak, and the mud on the ground made walking and standing difficult. Corpses lay uncovered in the mud. The mud was an enemy.

Thus, when an Auschwitz survivor refers to "mud" in a testimony, it is far more than a climatic or topographical description.

Historian and linguist Itzhak Attia is researching, in the framework of the International Institute for Holocaust Research, the semantics involving the deeper meaning of the nouns used in testimonies.

When a survivor describes his or her Auschwitz experience, Attia explains, there is a lack of suitable language to sensitively and accurately describe the situation without making it sound banal. Elie Wiesel commented that Auschwitz is incomprehensible to someone who was not there.

In an effort to give deeper meaning to the terms used in testimonies, and consequently to draw a more comprehensive picture of camp life, Attia has compiled a list of 50 words used repetitively in testimonies, which he explains based on their context. This list amounts to a dictionary of Auschwitz survivors' terminology.

"Words are signals," explains Attia. "Simple nouns such as 'soup,' 'walk,' 'food' and 'door' encompass a whole world of connotations. Words, he says, have both structural and cognitive semantics. His interest lies with the former. "In order to talk about a noun in a particular time period, one has to understand the semantic [or the explicit] traits attached to that noun, at that time."

One word that has especially interested Attia is "door." More accurately, the door to the train that transported Jews into the camp. When a survivor refers to the opening of the [transport] "door," he or she is recalling a bombardment of sensations: the immense noise of the simultaneous opening of all the train doors; the sudden transferal from pitch black to glaring light; the contrast between the intense heat suffered for anything between three and 10 days in the stuffy carriage to the ice-cold chill of the raw elements; and the change from an intensely claustrophobic environment to a vast open expanse.

Attia calls the "door" the "missing air chamber," because it should be the space where those being transported can prepare or readjust to the stark difference between life on either side of it. Instead of alighting through this door, the inmates are dragged from the carriage and marched into a horrific new reality. And the more their reality is contrasted to ours, the harder it is for us to understand the depth of language they use in recalling events.

Attia says that those who read the testimonies need to be initiated into the language used by the survivors because, largely for psychological reasons, the survivors do not explain them.

"Soup" is another word that Attia has attempted to describe explicitly. Soup was more than nutrition and very temporary warmth. It was an instrument of reward and punishment. The Nazis decided who received soup with stock—which could be bartered for essential items—and who received just tasteless hot water. Fighting for a place in the soup line was also part of the feeding process. Soup was a source of life.

The term "arrival" (at the camp) also has specific connotations to the Auschwitz inmate. With arrival, came assault by the SS, terrifying dogs, selection and registration.

In order to fully comprehend the memory being recalled by survivors and in order not to trivialize their testimonies, these hidden meanings must be acknowledged and understood. Attia's lexicon will go a long way toward providing this understanding.