Sei sulla pagina 1di 4

Jewish Studies Client

Reaction Paper: Speak you also

I must say that Speak You Also indeed tells an empowering story of struggle and
determination without showing the slightest trace of self-pity. Steinberg's novel was so moving,
because he did not feel bad for everything he endured, but instead focused on the theme of what
made him survive. This memoir represented Steinberg's survivors compulsion to speak out
about the horrors he witnessed during his days in Auschwitz as well as to reflect on many
unanswered questions in this extremely heart-filled and brutally honest account of the Holocaust.
Steinberg's memoir differs from our other Holocaust readings in the way his story is told. At no
point does he speak about themes like power of hope or deliverance, nor does he see himself as a
victim. Instead, this is Steinberg's tale told as real and unashamed as can be. Compared to the
other readings in class where Holocaust survivors more or less were not willing to compromise
their sense of right and wrong to survive, we see a different story with Steinberg. In mans search
for meaning Frankl noted that in camp the individual differences did not blurr but on the
contrary people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the
saints. It would seem as if Steinberg rode this line between swine and sainthood. One example
would be seen in the constant question of morality, which Steinberg comments "You do good
when you can and when you happen to feel like it. In all other cases, you do evil, if you have
even the slightest scrap of power". Even after all this time the author effectively captures the
emotions of himself and those around him. He is able to bring back all these horrifying memories
to share with the reader so his story is never forgotten.

There many themes expressed in Steinbergs account that we encountered before in our class
readings. One such theme is need to grow up from childhood to adulthood because of the
experience. We see this when Steinberg says To survive, Id had to cross in just a few weeks the
gulf that separates adolescence, that period of apprenticeship and dependence, from adulthood,
when you have to look out for yourself and decide from day to day how youll manage to stay
alive. From a vulnerable, candid, and warmly affectionate youth burst forth, like a butterfly from
a chrysalis, that cold and calculating creature singled out by Primo Levi. Helplessly kicked
around by events, I decided to become a player in the game, first on my own behalf, afterward
for others. This is comparable to Leon Leibergs experience in The Cap where he found himself
being parentless at the age of fifteen or Applefelds ordeal as he and other children wander
through the wilderness parentless.
We also see the theme of luck Steinberg tells us of his blunders and bad luck: Steinberg is
intrigued by the trickiness of his experience in Auschwitz: not the lesson but the luck. "How can
I justify those unbelievable strokes of luck," he asks, knowing just how rhetorical the question is,
"that made me into this fireproof and unsinkable being?" "For a lucky few of us," he writes, there
was "gradual adaptation, the upward climb, and transformation into a different variety of human
being, no longer Homo Sapiens but 'extermination-camp man'" not realizing that his
uncircumcised penis could have saved him from deportation, being tattooed by the same needle
that had just tattooed someone with hepatitis (he was the only one to survive the viruss attack).
He also tells us of his good luck, in fact, he begins the book by describing his luck at the races,
an apt metaphor for the luck it took to survive the camps. He fortuitously buys an analytical
inorganic chemistry book just after his arrestand the information he memorizes allows him to
work indoors with Primo Levi and the other chemists; he feels the guilt of being too lucky

when doctors give him (and not someone else) a recently discovered and rare (in the camps)
sulfa drug that cures his raging fever and delirium, enabling him to make it through the winter to
spring. Victor Frankl himself speaks about luck when mentions we who have come back by the
aid of many lucky chances or miracleswhatever one may choose to call themwe know: the
best of us did not return.
That you had to be a new kind of new kind of person to survive in the camps, and that a
Darwin-Lamarck story seems to have come to both their minds as an explanation, is not strange,
given the circumstances (and the times). But Steinberg's question is not: is it immoral to survive,
if what one does in order to survive is immoral? What he asks is: is it immoral to be lucky? And
one answer would be: it is immoral to be lucky when what you are calling 'luck' is something
you yourself have organised. What Steinberg (and the rest of us) like to call 'luck' is sometimes
disowned intention, masquerading as coincidence. And sometimes it is luck. Steinberg (like the
rest of us) isn't sure quite what he should be taking responsibility for; and he isn't quite sure what
Primo Levi holds him responsible for. It may be moral luck to find yourself in situations where
your moral principles work, but in that case moral luck wouldn't mean much more than never
being in a new situation. Or it may be moral luck to come up with the morals you need in any
given situation, but in that case what you like to call your morality is in fact your opportunism.
Steinberg is more interested in the charmed life than the moral life: more interested in what
he gets away with than in what he aspires to. What actually happens fascinates him because his
sense of what should happen is so precarious, so uncertain. He was 17 when he arrived in the
camp (Levi was 24), and wonders, both interestingly and archly, as is often his way, whether it
was the combination of his youth and his unhappy childhood that had prepared him so well for

life in the camp. "It seems certain," he remarks, "that a happy stable childhood, protected and full
of affection, would have been the worst thing that I could have had." What, after all, does a good
childhood prepare one for? Steinberg's childhood of "continual displacements and readjustments"
meant, he believed, that he "would 'attend' Auschwitz with invisible resources that vastly
increased my chances of survival". No childhood can prepare one for life because life is not the
kind of thing that can be prepared for. And Steinberg's callously ironic references to Auschwitz
as a school both refer to what his family life had prepared him for, and suggests that it was
indeed an education of sorts
Clearly nothing in Auschwitz made him feel that life wasn't worth living. Or that it was somehow
shameful to want to find a way of living in such conditions even if this could only be achieved
by not making a necessity of virtue. "I don't believe in the steadfast hero," he writes, "who
endures every trial with his head held high, the tough guy who never gives in. Not in Auschwitz.
If such a man exists, I never met him, and it must be hard for him to sleep with that halo." It was
not their ideals or their principles that got people through, Steinberg thinks, but that 'inordinate'
appetite for life which he implies was synonymous with an extreme flexibility. To be a traditional
hero in Auschwitz would, he believes, have been unbearable. Most of the traditional virtues that
Levi, in his grave book, wants to preserve were not an option for the 17-year-old Steinberg. He
just wanted to survive; and in writing about how he did it he doesn't, by the same token, turn his
"stubborn good luck", his "frantic desire to survive", into another form of inner superiority. He
felt himself to be fortunate, but not elected.