A Secret Diary Chronicled the ‘Satanic World’ That Was DachauBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, Nazism, concentration camps, World War 2, primary sources
The final article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, remembers Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a prisoner at Dachau who secretly documented everything he observed in the concentration camp in a diary, which he then buried until the American liberation.
His cheekbones stuck out like mountaintops from a barren valley. Gnawing hunger had tortured him for months. Day and night, his thoughts vacillated between fantasies of his favorite foods — of chewing even — to how he might take his own life. A prisoner’s existence in Neuengamme concentration camp, in the wet and the cold near the German port city of Hamburg, he later explained, was like walking a tightrope. The only way to keep from falling was to focus on yourself and avert your eyes from the unimaginable misery all around you.
Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz wasn’t Jewish or a Communist — categories of people who were incarcerated mercilessly in Nazi Germany — but in November 1940 he was sent to the concentration camp at Dachau, apparently for the crime of being a pacifist. When he was transferred to Neuengamme, he thought there was no place on Earth worse than Dachau. He was wrong. In four months of crushing labor and near-starvation rations at Neuengamme, he lost nearly 100 pounds. When he was sent back to Dachau, in late April, with about 500 other sick prisoners, the comrades he knew there just a few months previously no longer recognized him. He no longer recognized himself.
Just over a year and a half later, Edgar was assigned to work as an office manager in a screw factory just outside where most of Dachau’s inmates were housed. This new position spared him from some of the arbitrary violence that befell other prisoners, and it also provided him clandestine opportunities to keep a secret diary.
“Some comrades spoke to me about writing yesterday evening,” he wrote on Feb. 12, 1943. “They expect a book from me about Dachau, a book that says everything, that illuminates everything correctly and does not hide anything.” By the time Dachau was liberated by American forces, in April 1945, Edgar had written more than 1,800 pages.
Part of what makes Edgar’s diary so astonishing — other than its sheer size and scope — is that it survived the war at all. While the number of postwar memoirs written by survivors of the Holocaust is enormous, the number of testimonies that were actually written inside German concentration camps is far smaller. The ones that do exist are often fragmentary, and almost none show Edgar’s extraordinary powers of observation in analyzing the unique and hellish universe that was the Nazi concentration camp.