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.