In The Seventh Well, an unnamed narrator talks about his experiences in several concentration camps during World War II not by focusing on his suffering, but by detailing the sufferings and previous lives of the other men in the camps. What is unique about The Seventh Well in comparison to other books I've read about the Holocaust is that Wander details the interactions between the prisoners. The Germans, called "jackboots" in the book, are always there inflicting harm, but most of the narrative is about the conversations the men have while working, how they prop up the sick and the fallen to avoid "the bullet," how they ponder their lives and the likelihood of death in the near future.
He fills his nostrils with the smell of the woods, and he looks about him, looks for the vanished traces of beauty in his life. Suddenly he is looking for a friend with whom he can share these things, and when he has found him, he intoxicates himself with his past, spread out like an oil painting before his eyes. Something in him is driven to yell out: I am human! I have known respect! he wants to cry out. I was loved, I had a home, a wife and children, friends. I have performed kindnesses and not asked for reward. I have seen marvellous things, I know the smell of old cities. I could have done anything, achieved everything, and if I didn't do or achieve, then it was only because I didn't know, I couldn't sense... (page 15)
A Jew next to me by the axle, a man I didn't know, large, bony, and stooped, his face extinguished, kept murmuring with every breath, "How much longer? How much longer? How much longer?" He kept his eyes shut, his hands, which were ripped and bloody from the axle, kept pulling the wagon, we all were pulling the wagon, the wagon was our life, the wagon was a game, whoever succeeded in getting it across the mountains had won. (page 40)
Something had sharpened my vision, allowed me to see faces otherwise than before. Disfigured faces, faces swollen with wounds, with scurf, with purulent sores, but faces that had still somehow retained some of their individual character: pride and self-respect, comfort, and a last shimmer of better days in the past. (page 82)The chapters are not chronological, and they read like stand-alone essays. A mere three pages, the chapter titled "Bread" captured my attention. Wander, in the voice of his nameless narrator, describes the many different ways in which the prisoners eat their meager rations of bread. Some eat it frantically right when it touches their hands so that no one can steal it, while others go about dividing the loaves into unequal pieces and drawing lots. The narrator points out that some save the bread and carry it with them, but these men have little chance of survival.
Then I still have to mention the masochists, the members of a secret bread cult. They torment themselves with an illusion. They put their ration into a bag they carry with them at all times. The bread, existing outside of their bodies instead of inside, might sustain their imaginations, but it robs them of their strength. They die faster than the others. In the course of working, who knows when, usually unseen by the others, they pull out tiny scraps -- their elixir -- from their bags, and eat them. Idiots. (page 30)The narrator provides little glimpses of his own journey from camp to camp, but the focus is always on the others. Their stories are heartbreaking, but Wander infuses the narrative with glimmers of hope. The narrator learns something from each of the men, and he carries it with him.
It's impossible for me to do this book justice. Wander's storytelling, though it jumps around, draws you in. The narrative is harsh and painful, but that's to be expected. I was blown away by The Seventh Well, by the images Wander presents; the sociological aspects of the story (the hierarchy of the inmates as Jews, political prisoners, etc.); and the fact that the prisoners recited poetry, sang opera, discussed philosophy and literature, and tried to keep their minds alive when the rest of their bodies were dying.
The Seventh Well is the kind of book you think about for hours after turning the last page. Given that the stories are based on Wander's own experiences, it left me with a different view of the concentration camps. It drives home the point that each and every person who entered the camps had a name, a face, an occupation, dreams, and passions. It was a hard book to read, but very enlightening. For more about Fred Wander, click here.
The Seventh Well is the 13th book I've read for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The Seventh Well.