I just finished Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. 

The subject is Shin Dong-hyuk (b. 1982), the only known person to have been born in a North Korean death camp and escaped. (I’ve become somewhat obsessed and will post about his story again later in the week). The passage below is in reference to a friendship Shin formed inside the camp with Park Yong Chul, a fellow inmate who had been born and raised in the outside world.

Their relationship echoed, in many ways, the bonds of trust and mutual protection that kept prisoners alive and sane in Nazi concentration camps. In those camps, researchers found, the “basic unit of survival” was the pair, not the individual.

“[I]t was in the pairs that the prisoners kept alive in the semblance of humanity,” concluded Elmer Luchterhand, a sociologist at Yale who interviewed fifty-two concentration camp survivors shortly after liberation.

Pairs stole food and clothing for each other, exchanged small gifts, and planned for the future. If one member of a pair fainted from hunger in front of an SS officer, the other would prop him up.

“Survival…could only be a social achievement, not an individual accident,” wrote Eugene Weinstock, a Belgian resistance fighter and Hungarian-born Jew who was sent to Buchenwald in 1943.

The death of one member of a pair often doomed the other. Women who knew Anne Frank in the Bergen-Belsen camp said that neither hunger nor typhus killed the young girl who world become the most famous diarist of the Nazi era. Rather, they said, she lost the will to live after the death of her sister, Margot.

On January 2, 2005, Shin and Park tried to escape together. Park was instantly electrocuted trying to climb between the two lowest wires of the barbed wire fence. His dead body served as a makeshift “ground” over which Shin walked, badly burning his legs in the process, to eventual freedom.

6 Replies to “THE BUDDY SYSTEM”

  1. Yes, this makes sense… I wonder, though, in the absence of another, can we ever get close enough to God that friendship with Jesus is the other half of the "pair?" I think of His statement, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

  2. The problem with psychological studies is that they stop short of spiritual pondering. But you, Steve, went further. Good for you! If people know through belief or experience that God is a ready arm to lean on, then they could survive without a "pair." But most people don't know how close and inseparable we are from God. Not that depending on our fellow man isn't good and lovely, too. But if we do happen to be lost in the desert, then, yes, it's completely possibly to feel Christ guiding and guarding us simply because we know that our connection is a spiritual fact. The Holocaust is full of examples where prayer saved people's lives. I adore those kinds of stories.

  3. Heather, I saw his interview on "60 Minutes" last month. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This is 2012. Hard to imagine that there are people who could be so completely cut off from the rest of the world, outside of common human experiences, let alone with no education or sense of love. May God shine a line in such darkness. Thank you for continuing to address such stories.

    A few years ago there was a website called "Pray the News" which was written by some Carmelites in Indianapolis. (Sadly they had to move to take up residence with another group of Carmelites because they couldn't sustain themselves financially.) They shared what was kind of a Lectio Devina on current news stories, both big and small items. I found it helpful as a way to respond prayerfully to things which were almost unbearably distressing and/or incomprehensible. Almost the only way to approach this story.

    Happy New Year! My it be fruitful.

  4. Well this is very interesting to me, Turnwrite and Stephen, the "pair" concept–one of the reasons the passage struck to my heart is that I have no "buddy" and have not for years…I think that in a death camp "pairs" have a better chance of surviving goes way beyond the psychological. –"Man is not meant to be alone," and in fact the truly Christ-like heart is always moving away from self-enforced isolation and into community. While it's true, as St. Therese of Lisieux realized at about the age of 10–"Isn't Jesus my only Friend?"–she also joined a community. Part of the deal when you're single, part of the work, is seeking out and cultivating the friendships, relationships and community we all need to survive (even while we introvert types would often "rather" be alone)–as we are all in our ways in a death camp. I think the truly Christ-like heart trusts–and how incredibly difficult it must be to trust any other human being in an actual death camp. So I see Shin and his companion and the desperate urge toward the light as deeply Christ-like, not least of all because one of them ended up literally laying down his life so the other could step over it to freedom.

    Jesus is our one true companion but I think it is very dangerous to think that means we choose either him OR people. We choose Him IN choosing people, and we are perhaps most Christ-like when we choose, when we accept, to be with his people, i.e. all people, not the ones for whom we necessarily have a personal preference, the uber-example of course being Church.

    In my early-conversion naivete, I once asked a priest, "Do you ever get to celebrate Mass alone, by yourself?" He looked at me in bewilderment and said, "Why would I want to?"…

    And as always, thanks, too, Mary Beth. The Eucharist is our shield against despairing of the suffering and evil of the world. We realize we are complicit in the evil, and with humble and contrite hearts we go to Christ and ask how in our mostly tiny unseen ways we can do better…

  5. Park didn't choose to be electrocuted thogh did he? Although admittedly defacto it doesn't change the story that our survivor wouldn't have made it without Park.

  6. Hi there TS, the point of the piece was not that people tend to do better in death camps when they pair up with another who chooses to die; it's that they do better when they pair up at all, and that people seem to instinctively know or to want to pair up. That in this case Park ended up "laying down his life", though that was surely not the intention or desire or expectation of either of them, and that Shin was able to escape by climbing over the corpse, to me made the "the buddy system" all the more graphic and poignant.


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