Robert Antelme: Humanity’s face

At long last my copy of The Human Race by Robert Antelme arrived in my Bulgarian postal box.

I thought that I’d do a few reflective posts on the contents of the book because it’s a heavy hitter.  To give you a quick run down, the book recounts the horrors of one Frenchman’s experience of being in the hands of the Nazis during 1944/45. Antelme survived the ordeal and this book is the result.

As the title suggests the book portrays humanity.  This work, however, not only captures the (in)humanity of the Nazis, which one might reasonably expect, but also the humanity that was revealed in himself and his fellow travellers.

The book begins with Antelme in a labour camp at Buchenwald.  He’s been chosen along with his mates to be transported somewhere.

The passage I quote below is from page 17.

The men are about to make the short walk to the train that was waiting nearby, but first they were faced with saying goodbye to the other men in the camp.

It was too late – too late to get acquainted.  We ought to have talked sooner; they were clumsy, these strangers seeking in haste to become acquainted.  Too late.  Yet all this showed that we were capable of feeling; we weren’t dead.  On the contrary, the life in us had just been awakened  from the incipient  sleep of the camps.  We were still capable  of sadness upon leaving comrades, still fresh, human.  And that was reassuring.  We already needed reassurance – which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.

I’m reminded of the overly sentimental goodbyes that we made to each other at the end of year 12.  Tears.  Talk of staying in touch and remaining friends forever.  Songs were written and sung.  Hugs.  Letters.  Heartfelt words.

In the moment is was so real.  We were serious.  We had a bond.  A year 12 leavers bond.  Nothing can break that!

And what did our parents think as they looked on?  Did they know that within a year or two all those friends bar one or two would not even be a memory?  Did they realise that our passion was momentary and fleeting?  They had been there and done that – they knew.  They knew.

Goodbyes do that.

Goodbyes are like the biblical love that covers over a multitude of sins.  Goodbyes bring out something that can rarely be mustered in the daily grind of life.  On the deathbed.  At the funeral.  We pluck up some courage to scrape together that bit of humanity that lies in the outskirts of our heart.  This is the realm of frankness, honest and grit.  The true story.  Not how it appeared, but how it was.  The brat is the kid that everybody loved.  The drunkard was a real mate.  The adulterer loved life.

Is it true?  Do goodbyes help us to see people for who they really are.  People.

Antelme picks up on the flip-side.  In such moments we come to understand ourselves truly.  We are reminded that we are, ‘still fresh, human’.  With the words that we manage to squeak out our humanity is formed – and so assured.

Hmmm… the pull is great, but a little too generous and a tad disingenuous.

I think Antelme is torn.  I don’t think he knows whether the goodbye brings out the best or the worst of the human.  He betrays himself in the last line, ‘…which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.’

Yes, we do.

Surely it is one or the other.  Is it true that the brat was loved by everyone?  Was the drunk a real mate?  What was the adulterer a lover of?   Could this fresh humanity be confused with pillow fluffing?  That one’s humanity is non-existent throughout life only to surface at the goodbye smacks of, well, a human facade.

Is one’s real humanity revealed in times like this?

My cynical bent tells me no.