4.7. Addendum: The Living and the Dead
When Jacques Lusseyran arrived at Buchenwald, totally blind, he didn't know how to defend himself. "One day out of two," he writes, "people were stealing my bread and my soup. I got so weak that when I touched cold water my fingers burned as if they were on fire."
And yet, jumping past the story he tells below, we find that Lusseyran became the "official" newscaster for some thirty thousand prisoners in the concentration camp. He made it his business to listen carefully to the German newscasts that came over the loudspeaker system, inferring everything he could from the gaps and circumlocutions in the reports. He also received news from France, England and Russia via a clandestine radio set up by some prisoners in one of the cellars. With this intelligence he went around to the several blocks in the camp and announced the daily progress of the Allied invasion of France and Germany.
It is hard to imagine what this service meant in Buchenwald. Lusseyran found that rumors were rampant, impossible to trace. "Paris had fallen once a day . . . . All were guilty, all were peddling rumors . . . . Doubt and agony were taking root . . . . Everyone lied at Buchenwald, some from discouragement, some from fear, others from ignorance, and some viciously. I have watched men inventing the bombing of cities just for the pleasure of torturing a neighbor who had all his dear ones in that place."
It would have been possible to write the news out, have it translated by other prisoners into the several languages of the camp, and then distributed. But this disembodied communication, Lusseyran says, would not have served the need, which was for "realities that went straight to the heart. Only a man standing before them could give them that. They needed his calm and his voice, and it was I who had become the voice."
So he worked all day long at his task, digesting the news and going from block to block to announce it in German and French himself, and in other languages with the help of others. He first repeated the bulletins of the German high command word for word, then explained what he understood them to mean. He took the pulse of a block when he entered it.
I could sense the condition of a block by the noise it made as a body, by its mixture of smells. You can't imagine how despair smells, or for that matter confidence. They are worlds apart in their odor.
Depending on this reading, he gave out more of one part of the news or another. "Morale is so fragile that a word, even an intonation can throw it out of balance."
The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face, his reassuring words delivered in a loud voice, and with the news he gave out, that on days when there was no news, they made him visit them just the same.
But "cheerful" hardly describes Lusseyran's Buchenwald recollections, which are horror-filled, yet illumined with a strange hope. We reprint here a passage from And There Was Light describing some of his early experiences in the camp. (Copyright 1963 by Little, Brown and Company and Jacques Lusseyran; copyright renewed 1991 by Conrad Schachenmann.)