It was a sunny day, a Spring day such as when one might find themselves taking a leisurely walk outside to enjoy all the new life appearing everywhere, while breathing in all the smells of growth and life. Unless one found oneself stuck in a concentration camp, of course. Here there is no new life, only the slow extinction of it. Along with watching the dying hope in the eyes of those trapped here with us.
“It’s faith that keeps you going.” Set, my bunkmate, told me on one occasion. I guess that’s true, as it is the only thing that remains after the camp guards have taken everything else. Your clothing. Your valuables. Maybe a family member, or friend or two. I try not to remember the faces of those who didn’t make it through the initial selection. Those screams that became increasingly more desperate as their ultimate fate became unavoidable. The stories that trickled through from the prisoners who were selected to remove the corpses and clean the worst of the… mess. Before the next wagons with prisoners arrived for their selection. The black, acrid smoke that would waft over the camp for hours after the screams died down. I don’t want to remember the faces.
Faith. A word so uncomfortably close to ‘fate’ in its pronunciation. The latter a word that has come to mean certain doom to all of us here. Our fate is to die. Maybe not right after the selection, maybe not during the first weeks of back-breaking work, maybe not after the first few experiments that some unfortunate prisoners got selected for. Yet none of us prisoners came to this camp to leave it ever again. Our fate is to be as useful to those who keep us here, while we do our best to cling to our faith and the dwindling hope that one day we’ll leave this place again, alive, and ready to rejoin what is left of the world we knew before… all this.
This morning, Set and I were busy digging up soil and filling buckets for some reason along with other prisoners, out in the bright Spring-time Sun. As I stood up at one point to stretch my aching back, I could feel my grumbling tummy protest against this hard labour. Only a few chunks of bread and thin soup for dinner last night, and no breakfast, make for a poor foundation to work on. At least we were supposed to get a bit more food for lunch, which might at least make the worst hunger pangs go away. Just got to preserve one’s strength as much as possible without it appearing that you’re slowing down.
At that moment, I noticed Set drawing my attention to something that had happened elsewhere on the field on which we were working.
“Joan. I guess this is the end for her.” He mouthed at me, trying not to draw attention to us from the guards.
I could only watch on as I returned to the digging, noticing from the corner of my eyes a couple of guards making their way over to a fallen figure, before they prodded it with their rifles. One of them laughed. Eventually they yelled at some prisoners who picked up the body and dragged the skeletal remnants of Joan – still clad in a faded camp coverall – with them. Towards the big smokestacks.
Later that day, after we had all wolfed down our meagre dinner and collapsed onto our wooden bunks with thin straw-filled mattresses, we had some time to talk without the guards paying attention. Huddled closely in the dark on the lower bunk’s mattress, I felt acutely aware of how thin Set had become since we had arrived at the camp. It must have been months now. Touching my own arms and rib cage, I was forced to admit that I probably didn’t look much better than Set. Under my fingers, I felt almost as bad as Joan had looked when they dragged her away.
“Joan… she had a strong faith.” Set said quietly next to me.
After pausing a moment, he continued, seemingly almost oblivious to my presence.
“Before I came here, I had faith. I have read all the holy scriptures, I attended all the gatherings. I had assumed that we’d just have to live our lives by our faith and everything would be fine. But not any more. I cannot.”
I didn’t feel that it was my place to say anything, so I kept quiet. After a few moments of silence, Set turned around and looked at me. His gaunt, almost skeletal face looked particularly haunting at this angle, especially with how the few dim, bare light bulbs in the room drew out the hollow cheeks and eye sockets.
“Joan was convinced that her God would save her. Would save all of us. In the end her convictions are no better than the convictions held by those who imprison us here. What does absolute conviction bring but death and suffering?”
At Set’s words, I remembered my own religious upbringing and the certainties that this has provided me with. The conviction that I merely had to follow the rules laid out for me by the scriptures and our religious leaders. Yet what good were those rules now, in this place?
“You know what’s ironic?” Set said as his gaze wandered over the listless prisoners with us in these barracks. I shook my head.
“The people who built this camp and who run it, those who round up people like us to transport them to a fate worse than that reserved for cattle. All of them do it because of their conviction that it is the right thing. This absolute, blind conviction makes that we are here, and they are at the other side of the barbed wire. It’s why we’re dying and they are the ones holding the weapons.”
“So we should just give up, then?” I weakly respond.
Set shakes his head wearily.
“No, not at all. It’s good to have faith, to keep up hope. If we’re going to die here, it shouldn’t be because we gave up. Yet I fear that perhaps the biggest challenge may come if we do survive.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t survival all that matters?” I respond, confused.
“Say we do make it out of here, or at least some of us do. What would prevent the same absolute convictions that have led all of us here, to do so again, and again? After all, what are convictions but good intentions, with the very road to damnation paved with the the strongest of all convictions?”
“Beyond this camp we have to fight against absolute convictions and dogma.” I say, as Set’s reasoning begins to dawn on me.
“Indeed. What humanity needs is a world filled with reason, with mutual understanding and empathy. Did you ever stop to question the rules laid upon us by our leaders and scriptures, or the wisdom of policies?”
I shake my head, feeling the shame and guilt at remembering my old gullibility.
Smiling faintly, Set reassuringly pats me on my coverall-clad shoulder.
“We got to have faith that we will be granted the chance to do better, once we walk out of this place.”
Wiping away a few tears, I nod in agreement and relief.
“Once we walk out of this place.” I agree.