A former prisoner of Auschwitz recounts his experience in the camp and his hellish transformation into what he calls an “extermination-camp man”—a human sub-species focused solely on survival and lacking all feelings and the attendant care for others.
At 16, the author was a spoiled teenager living in Paris who loved science, mathematics, and gambling. His childhood had been difficult, full of upheaval as his family moved around Europe: not close to his parents, and not resident anywhere long enough to make real friends, he became a self-sufficient individualist. He was multilingual, adaptable, and familiar with unpleasant changes—all factors that helped him survive the brutality of Auschwitz (where strength, luck, and “the flexibility of a contortionist” were required). Steinberg freely formed alliances with the hardened criminals who were running the camp, who could dispense extra food or other favors. “I concluded that each of these monsters had a flaw, an Achilles heel, which it was up to me to find: this one needed flattering, that one had a repressed paternal instinct or the need to confide in someone who seemed to take an interest in him.” At one point, sick with dysentery and scabies (which cause painful skin ulcers), he concluded that, for all intents and purposes, human relations had ceased to exist and he didn’t even know his own bunkmate. Later, he used his basic knowledge of chemistry to bluff his way into a laboratory assignment in the I.G. Farben factory where prisoners were forced to work. In the lab, he met Primo Levy—who later was to describe Steinberg as a soulless manipulator, an animal obsessed only with his continued existence. Ultimately, Steinberg agrees with this assessment, and admits that he doesn’t even remember meeting Levy—“perhaps because I hadn’t felt he could be useful to me.”
A sad phenomenology of human degradation.