They have one goal for every day, the two of them, a father and a son, 19 and 52 years old. There in the barracks together.
They decide on a subject they will discuss, every single evening. It can be about mathematics, about religion, or a text from the Talmud, the collection of rabbinic discussi- ons on Jewish subjects. Lying next to each other on the narrow bunk they repeat the stories, repeat and repeat, force their brains to function, force themselves to think.
These evening discussions will last for a long while, in four different prison camps – Auschwitz, Wolfsberg, Mauthausen and Ebensee – from May 1944 to their rescue the next year.
Herman Kahan, or Haim Hersch Kahan which is his complete Jewish name, is found on a pile of corpses in the death camp of Ebensee in Austria in April 1945. A slight movement of an arm or leg in between the layers of dead bodies is seen by an American soldier.
The Allies have just taken control of the camp, and have started the work of getting the many piles of bodies on trucks, over to mass graves. Herman Kahan’s tiny movement saves him. But it took more than that to help Herman, who grew up in the northern Rumanian town of Sighet, survive the four torture and extermination camps that worked so efficiently in Hitler’s Holocaust.
Survival techniques can mean everything during imprison- ment in unbelievable brutality. Every person has his own me- chanisms for survival, Herman believes.
The father, Arje Leib, known as Leopold, and the son, Herman Kahan, quickly realize that they must learn them. They discover the invisible communication between prisoners, the small, secret signs that warn of danger or tell of opportunities for getting some extra food. A finger pushing up an eyelid means danger.
A thumb stuck right up is a sign that a person is dead, has gone up the pipe, as they call it. They learn to speak without moving their lips so that talking to the next man cannot be heard by the SS-soldiers.
Survival is a combination of many small things, Herman thinks. Luck. Cunning. Experience. They learn the basic law of the concentration camp: “You can do whatever you want, but you must never allow yourself to be caught!”
But most important is never to forget the ability to be rational, to think of smart solutions, to think at least one step further on than right now.
Herman’s daily talks with his father save him from the fate that the Nazis are working so hard for: to transform and debase human beings so much that they almost behave like animals. After a while one becomes pacified, apathetic, dull, so that it is impossible to react to anything other than food-drink-sleep. One must have mental strength in order to survive.
Herman remembers. They are assembled. It is fifteen or sixteen degrees below zero. One thin shirt, a pair of cotton trousers. No shoes. The soldiers then ask if anyone knows about book binding. Herman raises his hand. He uncle is a bookbinder. Herman often visited him and watched him work.
It isn’t long before he is exposed. He is no bookbinder, knows none of the techniques. But a week of keeping warm, of eating enough, gives him new strength.
“If my brain had been dulled, I wouldn’t have been able to think of that”, Herman says today. “And I wouldn’t have survived that week.”
Herman sees his fellow prisoners swallow their tiny bread ration in two gulps. He puts his in his breast pocket and takes only a microscopic bit at a time.
He had reasoned that his digestion would function more normally like that, understands that the feeling of hunger would be a bit less. He forces himself to think one step further than the present moment when manic hunger stalks him. “I could think because my brain had been allowed to force itself.”
Herman cheats on the heaviest work. He makes believe that he drills tunnels into the mountains, underground tunnels that will be used for the production of Hitler’s rocket weapons. But the drilling is not real.
Herman has learned to quiver without using force. This is protects the meagre energy still left in his body. A simple idea, but most of them never thought of this at all, says Herman.
But luck is also a factor. No survival techniques can save father and son when huge watchdogs are let loose, ripping and savaging the naked prisoners, some of them to death.
No techniques that can help Herman survive 50 blows of a blackjack. It may have been pure chance, luck, or a friend- ly soldier who didn’t hit quite so hard.
Father and son Kahan prove to be important to each other’s survival. While the father gives his young son mental nourishment, Herman is physically stronger than his father. He takes the punishment for him.
One day when Leopold cannot manage to meet for inspection, the son is given the feared 25 blows of the blackjack, blows that break his pelvis and usually lead to a rapid death. Herman survives two such rounds.
His father would not have survived that punishment. Herman would not have had the mentality to survive this life on his own. “I wouldn’t have survived without Father. He was a kind of guide who gave me mental strength.
The psyche has greater power to nourish the body than vice versa.”
His father dies six days after being freed. He has been told that Herman had survived. Herman says that he has never felt bitter, never hated the Germans.
“Hate is a disease. I have been spared that. Every single person has a responsibility for seeing that this never happens again.”