Tuesday, June 5, 2012

David Koker - Voice from the Abyss - AHO Day 2

At the Association of Holocaust Organizations Conference, Detroit, MI

What was it exactly that so impressed me -- no, blew my doors off -- about Professor Robert Jan van Pelt's presentation of his research and book about the concentration camp diary of David Koker? Here are the top 11 reasons:

1. The simple fact of a camp diary, kept on scraps of paper and scribbled with whatever stubs of pencil David Koker, a young Dutch Jew, could find;

2. The details David included about camp life, not just daily but sometimes minute-to-minute, continuing even as David's responsibilities in the camp, Frits Phillips, expanded to include influencing the names to be included on the lists of those to be deported to Auschwitz;

3. David's reaction -- as recorded in the diary -- when he faces what Auschwitz really means;

4. The struggle to maintain moral clarity in the depths of the abyss;

5. The significant literary skills of this young man, still in his early twenties, who had already edited a Zionist publication, written poetry, and had his own essays published, thus increasing the meaning of his diary;

6. The emergence of a love triangle between David, an 18-year old woman in the camp, and his girlfriend in hiding in Amsterdam;

7. The fact that David's strategy to preserve the diary actually succeeded;

8. The fact that Professor van Pelt's work includes multiple layers: a thorough biography of David Koker, a new translation of the diary (which was first published in Dutch), over 700 footnotes in the diary entries clarifying the events described, and brief biographical sketches of each of the individuals mentioned in the diary;

9. Professor van Pelt's painstaking and thorough research; 

10. Professor van Pelt's humble, careful but transfixing presentation at the conference, allowing the power of the material to speak for itself; and,

11. Professor van Pelt's use of editorial cartoons from the era (at least in his conference presentation) to provide background for the political and historical changes that ultimately brought David into the abyss.

I was pleased to know at the end of the session I was not the only participant who used the WiFi in the conference hall to buy the book even before the presentation was over. 

Read Tablet Magazine's review.

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