It is hardly possible for people to live for so many years as slaves in everyday contact with fascists and fascism without becoming somewhat twisted, without contracting a trace of that dry rot unwittingly and unwillingly.

I know the meaning of the words invidually include the meaning of dry rot. I think the meaning of contract is "to catch or become ill with a disease" but I'm not sure.

Could you please explain it to me?

The fuller text is:

The years of imprisonment had yet another paradoxical effect. Although we continually hoped for freedom, our concept of freedom had changed. Shut up behind barbed wire, robbed of all rights including the right to live, we had stopped regarding freedom as something natural and self-evident. Gradually, the idea of freedom as birthright became blurred. By the end of their time in the camps, many prisoners came to accept the view that freedom is something that has to be earned and fought for, a privilege that is awarded, like a medal. It is hardly possible for people to live for so many years as slaves in everyday contact with fascists and fascism without becoming somewhat twisted, without contracting a trace of that dry rot unwittingly and unwillingly. Usually, the reasoning went something like this: if, for the purpose of building a new society, it is necessary to give up my freedom for a time, to subsume something I cherish to a cause in which I strongly believe, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make. In any case, we are a lost generation. We all might have died uselessly in the camps. Since we did survive, we want to dedicate what is left of our lives to the future. This streak of martyrdom was stronger than was generally understood. People felt chosen by destiny to sacrifice themselves, a feeling that was reinforced by a strong sense of guilt that characterized many who had survived the camps. Why was I alive and not my father, my mother, my friend? I owed them something. They had died in place of me. For their sake I had to build a world in which this could never happen again. This was where the misconception lay: in the idea that Communism was the one system under which it could never happen again. Of course we knew about the Communism of the thirties in the Soviet Union, but that was an era of cruelty that had ended long ago, the kind of crisis out of which all great change is born. Who, today, would condemn democracy for the Terror of the Jacobins after the French Revolution?

Under a Cruel Star, A Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovály

Translated by Helen Epstein.

3 Answers 3


First, here are the relevant definitions...

contract - to catch or become ill with a disease (Source)

trace - a very slight amount (Source)

dry rot - a disease caused by a fungus that destroys wood in houses, boats, etc. (Source)

[People cannot live this way] without contracting a trace of [that disease]

I'd say there's some weakness in the translation here, because that dry rot doesn't seem to refer back to any specific antecedent (which would normally be expected). So far as I can see, it's up to the reader to construct a suitable "preceding noun" to serve as the target of that (usually we'd expect the relevant noun phrase to be explicitly provided earlier in the text).

Logically, "that dry rot" is probably intended to refer to the previously-mentioned acceptance [of the idea that freedom isn't a right, it has to be earned]. But it's not really very clearly expressed.

TL;DR: It's a stylised way of saying...

Anyone who lives like this [as a prisoner] will probably come to think [that rights must be fought for]


I'm not completely sure that "that dry rot" does not apply to fascism. That is, even though one is a prisoner as a result of an objectionable ideology, one is never immune from imbibing the ideas of that ideology by osmosis.


Both twisted and dry-rot are close in what they allude to in relation to people who hadn't cracked under fascism and thus managed to preserve their entity.

And, accordingly, I would proffer this interpretation"...without becoming somewhat perverted (evil, corrupt) without contracting a trace of that moral degeneration (depravity, decay) unwittingly and unwillingly.

  • Nah. The writer isn't claiming long-term prisoners actually become "morally degenerate" themselves. He's saying they become "infected" by despair (they lose their idealism, and no longer believe that freedom is an inalienable birthright). That's to say, people who have lost hope (in society, their fellow man, human rights) aren't so much "degenerate" as "diseased". Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 17:11

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