Muselmann in the Camps

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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Marvin Friedman of San Francisco would like to know the source of the word “Muselmann” as used by inmates of the Nazi death camps to describe their fellow prisoners who had given up all hope and thus lapsed into a state of despairing apathy. “I know,” he writes, “that the word literally means ‘Muslim’ in Yiddish, but I have a problem understanding what it connotes.”

No one ever will know for sure, of course, by whom or in what concentration camp the word “Musulmann” was first used in this sense; none of those who might have known are likely to have survived the Holocaust. However, the word might well have originated in Auschwitz, since, according to German Holocaust historian Wolfgang Sofsky in his “The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, it was more commonly used there than in other camps, in which there were different words for the same phenomenon: “donkeys” in Majdanek, “swimmers” in Mauthausen, “tired sheikhs” in Buchenwald and so on.

This also makes it impossible to determine just why the word “Muselmann” took on the meaning that it did. Primo Levi, who described the “Musulmen” as “an anonymous mass, continuously renewed and always identical, of no-men who march[ed] and labor[ed] in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty really to suffer… the weak, the infirm, those who were doomed to be singled out [for the gas chambers],” added that the reasons for this usage were unknown to him.

One can only indulge in speculations — and of these, there have been a number. Sofsky thought the association of apathetic concentration camp victims with Muslims came from their uncontrolled body movements; their “swaying motions” reminded onlookers of “Islamic rituals.” Two Polish scholars of the Holocaust, Zdzislaw Ryn and Stanislaw Kodzinski, second this explanation. The “Muselmen,” they say in an article on Auschwitz, “became indifferent to everything happening around them. They excluded themselves from all relations to their environment. If they could still move around, they did so in slow motion, without bending their knees. They shivered, since their body temperature usually fell below 98.7 degrees. Seeing them from afar, one had the impression of seeing Arabs praying. “The Encyclopedia Judaica,” on the other hand, attributes the term not to motion, but to motionlessness, i.e., to the ‘Muselmann’s’ “typical posture of ‘staying crouched on the ground, legs bent in the Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.’”

Others have thought that “Musulman” must have originally referred to mental rather than physical characteristics. For instance, in his “Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Italian writer Giorgio Agamben has theorized that “the most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God.” It was “Islam’s supposed fatalism,” Agamben writes, that led concentration camp inmates to turn it into a metaphor for the utter resignation that the “Musulman” exhibited.

Holocaust survivor and French philosopher Jean Amery, in his “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, explained the word differently. It came, he thought, from the dismissive attitude of Europeans toward Muslims, since “the so-called Mussulman, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts of good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions.”

At least one Muslim commentator, S. Parvez Manzoor, from whose article, “Turning Jews into Muslims: The Untold Saga of the Muselmänner,” much of the information in this column comes, has picked up on remarks like Amery’s to see in the concentration camp’s “Muselmann” a symptom of generalized Western Islamophobia. “There can be little doubt,” he protests, “that the contemptible image of the fatalist Muslim predates the arrival of the pitiable figure of the Muselmann at Auschwitz…. It is disconcerting to learn that even for the inmates of the camps, the Muslim was the Untermensch, the lowest of the low.”

Although one certainly can understand Muslim sensitivities on the matter, this strikes me as a reading of “Muselmann” that goes well beyond what the historical facts warrant. The inmates of the Nazi death camps certainly were not thinking of actual Muslims when they used this word; it would be hard to imagine, indeed, anything that might have been further from their minds. Whatever association with Muslims first gave “Muselmann” its concentration camp meaning, it was that meaning alone that they thought of whenever they heard or said it.

My own guess, for what it’s worth, is that the Encyclopedia Judaica’s explanation is probably the most correct. Not many Jews in the camps could have known about Islam’s supposed fatalism or religious beliefs, and anyone shivering or shaking would have been more likely to call to mind a praying Jew than a praying Muslim. Illustrated images of Arabs or Muslims sitting or squatting motionlessly in Oriental fashion, on the other hand, would have been more familiar and would have suggested the posture or attitude of apathetic passivity by which the “Muselmen” were characterized. “One hesitated,” as Primo Levi put it, “to call them living; one hesitated to call their death death.”

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