Subtitled “A Factual Novel,” Breaking Point is a chilling account of life in a Nazi transit camp, an official limbo from which the only exit is on the weekly train to Auschwitz. Yet its author, the Dutch historian and secular Jew, Jacques Presser (who was referred to as Jacob Presser in English language editions), never set foot inside a transit camp and spent several years of the war in hiding.
“The one thing I want to repeat for the tenth, for the hundredth time is that all this is true, that it was thus and not otherwise,” writes Presser’s alter ego and narrator, Jacques Suasso Henriques, a Dutch Jew of Portugese descent. Asserting the truth of a work of fiction so forcefully demonstrates remarkable self-confidence in the author, although there was certainly less scrutiny of Holocaust survivor credentials at the time the book was first published in the late 1950s.
Breaking Point is the title given the English language translation by Barrows Mussey. The original Dutch title was De Nacht der Girondijnen, which literally means “The Night of the Girondists.” The reference is to the arrest, trial and execution of the Girondists, a loose political faction that opposed the most extreme measures of the Jacobins and, in the end, fell victim to the very same themselves. (Through much of the war, Presser worked on a biography of Napoleon, Napoleon: Historie en Legende, which was published in 1946.)
Jacques Henriques is a teacher in a secondary school, living in tenuous security due to his family’s “Portugese papers,” in the book’s opening scenes. From time to time, he notes the absence of one or more of his students as the Nazis put increasing pressure on the dwindling Jewish population, but he feels relatively insulated from this terror. Then, one day, while quizzing his students on the “approved” Dutch history textbook, one of them tells him that her mother had been taken the day before:
“And she’d had herself sterilized, because they said …” Then she was crying. This is true; I could repeat it at the Last Judgment: this is what a thirteen-year-old girl said, those very words, in Class 2A of the so-called Jewish High School.
What next? I put down my book, and let the children “work individually for the rest of the period,” the classic phrase of teachers who don’t feel like keeping going.
With that, he walks out of the school without a word and decides to hide himself from the terror in the place he’s least likely to be taken. One of his students puts him in contact with Siegfried Israel Cohn, who runs the Disposition Service at the Westerbork transit camp. The DS, also known as the Jewish SS, polices the inmates of the camp and organizes the selection and loading of the weekly shipments to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. “We, a few intellectuals, office clerks, workmen, traveling salesmen, and peddlers, were to the others undoubtedly the most loathsome scum that God had ever created,” Henriques writes, but they were also effectively immune to selection themselves as they played an essential role in the process.
Henriques enters the camp and joins the DS with a reference from Cohn’s son, and attempts to appreciate the safety of his situation and numbing himself to reality by becoming as cynical as Cohn himself. He even admits to enjoying his position as Cohn’s adjutant: “I did not find it unpleasant. Sure enough, it gave me a pleasing tingle. Plainly I was already beginning to be a man.”
Soon, however, he finds it impossible not to see the camp as a version of hell:
This hell exists today alone. There is no past and no future; everyone knows that in his heart. The past is dead; the future is death. Between the two lies the narrow watershed, life. And that life consists of pursuing a shoelace, of quarreling over a seat by the stove, of fleeting encounters with a woman on the barter system, of intolerable loneliness in intolerable crowds. Each week it rises anew to the fiercest, the unspeakably grisly horror of the one night, the night before the departure; the apocalyptic plunge, forever new, of hundreds of human beings into destruction and death.
Henriques’ cloak of cynicism quickly wears thin, and, in the end, he finds it impossible to keep his anger and fear under wraps. The smallest event–Cohn knocking a book from the hand of a man waiting to board the train–proves his breaking point.
Despite the fact that Presser never experienced the camps at first hand, Breaking Point is a thoroughly convincing account. So convincing, in fact, that one of the most renown survivors and writers on the Holocaust, Primo Levi, was moved to translate the book into Italian in 1974 (as La notte dei Girondini).
Presser had ample evidence to draw upon. In 1943, his own wife, Debora, was arrested for holding forged papers as sent to Westerbork. Although she later died in the Sobibor camp, her life in the two camps was conveyed to him by her surviving fellow inmates. In 1950, he was contracted by the Dutch government to write a history of the experience of Dutch Jews during the War, a book published in English (and still in print) as Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. In his research for that book, he came across the diary of a Polish Jew who was a member of the FK [Fliegende Kolonne, or Flying Column], which dealt with the victims’ luggage. Although it did not mention Presser’s wife, it covered in detail the week she spent there.
In an afterword to a Dutch edition of the book quoted in Lina Insana’s 2009 book, Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto Italian Studies), Philo Bregstein wrote,
And here is an indication of why Presser, before he could begin Ashes in the Wind, first had to write this story about Westerbork: compelled by his sense of personal co-responsibility and in despair over the loss of his first wife, he had searched in this historical material for the place where his wife had last been before all traces of her were lost: that was Westerbork. It was for this reason that Presser knew so much about this subject, even though he had survived the war by going into hiding and had never set foot in Westerbork.
Presser himself saw a link between the two books that was not solely due to their subject. Although meticulous in documenting his sources and a critic of the hagiographic style found in most biographies of Napoleon prior to his own and that of his countryman and contemporary, Piet Geyl, Presser was nonetheless ready to note that both fiction and history were forms of story-telling:
… for me, there’s very little distance between literature like Night of the Girondists and history like Ashes in the Wind … Yes … there is reality in the fable of Night of the Girondists … just as the reality of Ashes in the Wind is … a fable. It goes beyond dry description … it has something to do with literature.
Just over 80 pages long, Breaking Point is barely more than a long short story, and written in an unadorned, frank confessional style. Yet it’s also a remarkably nuanced work that raises themes that extend far beyond its brief scope. I have to look back to Levi’s own last book, The Drowned and the Saved, to offer a comparable text.