The Ritual of Dream Interpretation in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp

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This study is based on the testimonies submitted by former Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners to Polish psychiatrists in 1973. The respondents gave accounts of the daily camp custom of dream interpretation. The method of dream explanation in the camp was not sophisticated. It was a simple way of understanding dreams as future-oriented signs of the dreamer’s fate. However, the custom of interpreting dreams in Auschwitz can be described as a complex and multilevel ritual that had at least 3 dimensions: individual, interpersonal, and social. On the individual level, this ritual was oriented on revealing the inmates’ future. A prisoner, listening to a dream reader, could receive a good or bad prophecy, and this uncertainty was the core of the process. The interpersonal dimension of this ritual was connected with the inmates’ need to capture others’ attention. On the social level, dream sharing was a community-building activity. On each of these levels, finding the meaning of a dream was not as important as being engaged in closer relationships with other inmates. This article is an attempt to characterize the Auschwitz ritual of dream interpretation in light of various branches of cultural and dream studies as well as Randall Collins’s theory of interaction ritual chains.

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