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Paul Steinberg’s Narrative, Chroniques d’ailleurs (1996)

“I’ll probably be one of the last to bear witness, the one whose recollections have ‘settled’ the most. The filter of memory has played its role, letting slip through a mixture of the essential, the incidental, the anecdotal—a selection determined by no apparent logic except, perhaps, the instinct of self-preservation.”[1]


Looking back after the passage of 50 years, Paul Steinberg decided to write down his memories of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, to which he was deported from Drancy in October 1943. His account follows the chronological order of the events only roughly, however. Though he begins with his arrest in Paris in September 1943 due to a denunciation and ends with his freeing and return to Paris in 1945, he continually draws connections to the postwar period, shifting between the time frames as required by the internal, associative context of the memories, often tied to individuals. Thus a chapter near the beginning of the book, “The Last Fight,” is devoted to the story of the boxer Victor Young Perez, with whom Steinberg came to Monowitz. The 70-year-old Paul Steinberg attempts in his writing to draw near to the 17- to 18-year-old who he was in the camp, tries to understand that young man’s—his own—actions and demonstrate with the help of his memories the extent to which the events and encounters of that time marked his subsequent life, left their traces, made him the man who is now writing this narrative.


Paul Steinberg’s desire in giving this account is not so much to depict the horrors of the camp, though that does play a part, but rather to reflect on the way the camp’s daily violence and stress deformed people, caused the author himself to adapt in order to survive, and simultaneously to feel guilty in the face of this survival. The profoundly traumatic effect of his own adaptation to the system of violence becomes especially clear in the chapter titled “The Slap,” in which Steinberg tells how one morning, acting as Stubendienst (the prisoner on barracks-room duty), he had to check the empty beds but found there only an old Polish Jew who refused to leave his bunk. Steinberg already had raised his hand to slap him before he stopped just short.


“The story ends there. I cannot say what his reaction was, whether he got up, whether he made his bed, or what happened to him.

For a moment I couldn’t move. Then I walked away, and that incident, a banal event in the daily life of a death camp, has haunted me all my life. So the contamination had done its job, and I had not escaped corruption. In that world of violence, I’d made a gesture of violence, thus proving that I had taken my proper place there.”[2]


The preoccupation with his own survival in Paul Steinberg’s narrative also extends to the dialog with Primo Levi, who depicted Steinberg in his autobiographical novel If This Is a Man as a fellow inmate named Henri, a conformist devoid of scruples, who treated everyone coldly.


“He [Primo Levi] was a neutral observer, that’s how he saw me, and I was surely like that, ferociously determined to do anything to live, ready to use all means at hand, including a gift for inspiring sympathy and pity.

The strangest thing about this acquaintance that seems to have left such precise traces in his memory is that I do not remember him at all. Perhaps because I hadn’t felt he could be useful to me? Which would confirm his judgment.


Can one be so guilty for having survived?”[3]


Paul Steinberg describes how he came to the camp as a 17-year-old youth who had become accustomed to a lack of emotional bonds and thus was prepared for some of the difficulties of camp life. In his family, he writes, he never felt at home and had no experience of close friendships because of the frequent changes of location and school. On the other hand, it was precisely the meetings with several older, well-educated, and formerly fun-loving French Jews in the prisoners’ hospital of Buna/Monowitz, with whom he discussed literature, art, and philosophy, that now left a lifelong impression on him. In writing his memoirs, Steinberg explores the way in which the experiences of the camp, in their violence, as well as the experiences of help and friendship, became virtually physical memories: The music he learned about in the hospital was music he treasured all his life, and even later on, he says, he enjoyed eating soup at every opportunity that presented itself. His lifelong fear of cold and winter weather, too, had its origin at the camp.


Paul Steinberg’s narrative shows how impossible it is for the survivor, even 50 years later, to really become free of the camp, even though he is safe from the camp’s direct physical violence. His  book renders an account not only of the events in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, but also of the very personal stamp that the extermination camp left on Paul Steinberg’s entire life.

(MN; transl. KL)


Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Steinberg, Paul: Chroniques d’ailleurs: Récit. Paris: Ramsay, 1996.
Steinberg, Paul: Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning, translated from French by Linda Coverdale. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

[1] Paul Steinberg: Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), p. 160.

[2] Steinberg: Speak, pp. 126–127.

[3] Steinberg: Speak, pp. 130–131.