Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Christmas at the Gandersheim Kommando by Robert Antelme

“The naked humanity that marks a famished face can appear in only a few, barely differentiated forms.”- Manes Sperber

In our little room there’s a crowd around the stove. Those who got there first sat themselves right down on the benches. Everyone holds his bread in his hand. Somebody says, “With this we are in great shape. One hell of a Christmas dinner, right?”

They were glancing intermittently at the bread, and appeared to be thinking. The benches were all taken, and I wasn’t able to sit down. I crowded in close up behind a bench and got the stove’s heat directly in the face. I cut a slice of bread, spread some ground meat on top of it, and reached my arm out over the shoulder of the guy in front of me, who leaned forward without complaining. I set the slice on the stove; others were doing the same thing. The stove was very hot. The fat from the meat melted quickly, and the red meat turned brown. The stove was covered with slices, and some guys had to scrap to find a little room for theirs. If he allowed it they would move a guy’s bread aside; but as soon as they pushed his slice a little too far and made it hang over the edge, he would complain, turn around and look at whoever it was, who would seem to apologize, although would leave their slices where they were. Then the guy who was complaining would push somebody else’s slice, in order to get his back on the stove, and so there would be complaints from another guy too, and voices would rise.

“You’re a pain in the ass. You ought to have gotten here sooner. The same ones always drag their ass and then want to be first.”

“All right, all right, don’t get excited. Hey, we aren’t going to yell at each other tonight.”
“I’m not yelling at you. Just don’t go too far.”

And it didn’t go any farther than that. An odor arose, the odor of bakeries and grilled meat and rich people’s breakfasts. But those back home, if they were eating bacon, if they were eating toast, they weren’t aware of how it had transformed, how it had started to change color, to roast, above all to smell, to give off this powerful odor; but we’d been given gray bread and we’d cut our slices and we’d put them on the stove ourselves, And now we were watching the bread turn into cake. Nothing escaped us. The meat was oozing, glowing, giving off the terrific odor of something to eat. For us, bread or potatoes that you bite into still had taste; but the something to eat that from a far fills mouth and throat and stomach with its odor –what that could be like, that odor, that was something we had forgotten.

I retrieved my slice. It was burning hot, it was like brioche; it was more than a jewel, it was something alive, a source of joy. It was slightly puffy, and the fat had permeated the soft part of the bread and made it glow. I bit off the first mouthful; as they sank into the bread, my teeth made a noise that filled my ears. It was a paradise of perfume, of juice and food. Everything was to eat. My tongue, my palate were overcome; I was afraid of losing some of it. I chewed it, and it was everywhere, on my lips, on my tongue, between my teeth; the inside of my mouth was a cave, and the food was parading around insider. Finally I swallowed it; it was gone. Once I had nothing more in my mouth the emptiness was intolerable. More. More. The word had been devised for tongue and palate. One more mouthful. One more mouthful. It mustn’t end. The crunching and tasting and licking machine was turned on. Never, as it did then, had my mouth felt itself to be something that couldn’t be fulfilled, that nothing could satisfy once and for all, that would be forever in need of something more.

Everyone ate solemnly. Some wanted to take no chances and were eating the bread cold, the way it had been given to them. They didn’t want to try a different world, they didn’t want to tempt themselves. Around here you mustn’t play about awakening too many demands, resurrecting too many buried tastes; eating something like that – something that couldn’t be any better- was dangerous.  Those guys seemed more detached. Instead of cutting their bread carefully into slices, they tore it into pieces, haphazardly; and they kept the pieces in their hands, as they would have done at home; their elbows on their knees, looking grave and austere.

I finished up the last mouthfuls. I’d found a seat on the bench.  Now the only thing to do was to warm myself, my head leaning forward, my hands stretched out towards the stove.  .  .


It’s an SS fantasy to believe that we have an historical mission to change species, and as this mutation is occurring too slowly, they kill. No, this extraordinary sickness is nothing other than a culminating moment in man’s history. And that means two things. First, that the solidity and stability of the species is being put to the test. Next, that the variety of relationships between men, their color, their customs, the classes they form into mask the truth that here, at the boundary of nature, at the point where we approach our limits, appears with absolute clarity: namely, that there are not several human races, there is only one human race. It’s because we’re men like them that the SS will finally prove powerless before us, It’s because they shall have sought to call the unity of this human race into question that they’ll finally be crushed.

Yet their behavior, and our situation, are only a magnification, an extreme caricature – in which nobody wants or is perhaps able to recognize himself – of forms of behavior and of situations that exist in the world, that even make up the existence of that older “real world” we dream about. For in fact everything happens in the world as though there were a number of human species, or, rather, as though belonging to a single human species wasn’t certain, as though you could join the species or leave it, could be halfway in it or belong to it fully, or never belong to it, try though you might for generations, division into races or classes being the canon of the species and sustaining the axiom we’re always prepared to use, the ultimate line of defense: “They aren’t people like us.”

And so, seen from here, luxuriousness is the property of the animal, and divineness is the property of trees, and we are unable to become either animals or trees. We are not able to, and the SS cannot make us succeed in it. And it is just when it has taken on the most hideous shape, it is just when it is about to become our own face- that is when the mask falls. And if, at that moment, we believe what, here, is certainly that which requires the most considerable effort to believe, that “The SS are only men like ourselves”; if, at that moment when the distance between beings is at its greatest, at the moment when the subjugation of some and the power of others have attained its limits as to seem frozen into some supernatural distinction; if, facing nature, or facing death, we an perceive no substantial difference between the SS and ourselves, then we have to say there is only one human race.

And we have to say that everything which masks this unity, everything that places beings in situations of exploitation and subjugation and thereby implies the existence of various species of mankind, is false and mad; and we have the proof of this here, the most irrefutable proof, since the worst of victims cannot do otherwise than establish that, in its worst exercise, the executioner’s power cannot be other than one of the powers that men have, the power to murder. He can kill a man but he can’t change him into something else.

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