English: Literature and Writing
This article challenges the widespread scholarly assumption that the term “Muselmann,” ubiquitous in Holocaust survivor accounts, denotes a fixed, silent, concentration camp “type” of prisoner who, nearest to death, was fated to die. Rather, based on evidence from a range of oral testimonies, and firsthand accounts, I show that by contrast, Muselmänner did not enter into a new ontological category or a different species. Rather, “Muselmannhood” was, surprisingly, a temporary condition for many who claimed to have been Muselmänner and yet survived. This implies that they were similar to other prisoners in kind, differing rather in degree, along a broad continuum of deprivation, starvation and proximity to death. Their routinely designated status as ultimate “others” thus reflects a strategy among the living to fend off approaching death, and a renunciation of human solidarity that brought survivors great shame.
Given this new, more fluid sense of the term, I link literary figurations of the Muselmann to other “death-in-life” metaphors in memoirs by Charlotte Delbo, Elie Wiesel and Ruth Klüger, who struggle to translate the quotidian extremity of death-in-life without resorting to specious euphemism. These writers invoke the Muselmann as their own shadowy Auschwitz double, a mirror of the self-that-died for the self-that-lived, an “impossible metaphor” that yields meaning precisely through dissimilarity. This study contributes to Holocaust Studies an ethical mode of reading the Muselmann among a newly assembled constellation of such impossible metaphors. These failed comparisons, which demand our witness in the form of active interpretation, I argue, mark the “aesthetics of survival” as efforts to translate, however imperfectly, the impossibility of “surviving”—only half-alive, part victim, part witness, even part collaborator—a place from where, as Delbo puts it, “None of us was meant to return.”
Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History