At the Edge of the Abyss: A Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Diary, 1943 – 1944

David Kok­er; Robert Jan von Pelt, ed.; Horn and Irons, trans.
  • Review
By – May 30, 2012

This pow­er­ful diary deserves to take its place among the small num­ber of such jour­nals, notably that of Anne Frank, that elu­ci­date the evil of the Nazi war against the Jews.

As a very young man, David Kok­er was already involved in Ams­ter­dam’s lit­er­ary scene as a poet, edi­tor, and writer. Kok­er and his fam­i­ly were caught in the roundup of Jews by the Nazis and their Dutch col­lab­o­ra­tors that took place in the years fol­low­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of the Nether­lands in 1940. Sent to the Dutch con­cen­tra­tion camp at Vught in Feb­ru­ary, 1943, Kok­er began to keep a diary, which has sur­vived to pro­vide one of the most insight­ful accounts of dai­ly life in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. At the time of Koker’s incar­cer­a­tion, Vught was an intern­ment camp; it grad­u­al­ly became a labor camp and final­ly a camp from which Jews were deport­ed to West­er­bork, a tem­po­rary stop before being sent to Sobi­bor or Auschwitz.

By Febuary 11, 1943, when Kok­er made his first diary entry, depor­ta­tions from the Nether­lands had been going on for almost sev­en months, where­in 44,000 Jews had been sent to Auschwitz. But life for Kok­er and the Jews sent to Vught was at first not the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence endured by Jews in the major Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps: because it was an intern­ment camp, Vught’s Jew­ish pris­on­ers enjoyed priv­i­leges unknown to Jews in the Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camp sys­tem. Jews were allowed to receive parcels from their rel­a­tives and friends, includ­ing food, books, and toi­letries; chil­dren attend­ed school, and at first, the pris­on­ers did not wear prison garb. An ear­ly diary entry informs us, Ate well. Peo­ple were quite touched by the meat, bread, but­ter, herring…At moments like that life is good, and being togeth­er with peo­ple is bear­able.” This sit­u­a­tion did not last. As Vught evolved into a more bru­tal and typ­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion camp, life became hard­er, and the fear of depor­ta­tion weighed heav­i­ly on the pris­on­ers . Kok­er notes in his diary, The good times are pret­ty well gone…all kinds of bar­ri­ers are raised up and pun­ish­ments are threat­ened….”

Koker’s diary is an invalu­able record of his obser­va­tions, thoughts, and feel­ings, as well as a record of dai­ly life in Vught. The diary cov­ers almost a year of his life before he was deport­ed. He did not sur­vive the war. Kok­er died in trans­port to Dachau in 1945. He was twen­ty-two years old.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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