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Expanded version of a talk given by Dr Robert Blackburn, FRSA
18 November 2013
- Elie Wiesel
- Jean Amery
- Mary Berg
- Tadeusz Borowski
- Charlotte Delbo
- Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies
- Heda Margolius Kovaly
- Stella Muller-Madej
- Hugo Gryn
- Ruth Kluger
- Primo Levi
“I had the sensation that I was living - but without being alive.”
Primo Levi (1919-1987) to his biographer Ian Thomson, ~1985/6, speaking of his return to Turin in the summer of 1945 after eleven months in Auschwitz, and another four on the slow journey by rail back home from the furthest point in Belarus.
Christabel Bielenberg (1909-2003) was one of the fortunate figures in the story of the Holocaust’s last years, as (it turned out) was her husband the German lawyer Peter Bielenberg. He was a dissident and friend of Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed by the Nazis after the failed Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler in June 1944. She was British-born, of Anglo-Irish stock, the niece of Lord Northcliffe, and her maiden name was Burton. Peter Bielenberg was captured by the Gestapo, and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where he was held in the punishment block for errant SS guards. Yet he miraculously survived, thanks to Christabel’s improbably successful intervention with a Gestapo officer. She tells this story in her well-known memoir The Past Is Myself, published in 1968. Peter Bielenberg could so easily have been shot out of hand, yet he escaped custody to go into hiding in the Black Forest, and thus survive the war. The Past Is Myself sold a million copies, while Peer and Christabel subsequently lived out their long lives in rural Ireland.
I start with Christabel Bielenberg because of the little parable, related in her memoir. She says:
‘…the story goes that at Hitler’s birth three good fairies came to give their good wishes. The first wished for him that every German should be honest, the second that every German should be intelligent, and the third that every German should be a National Socialist. An uplifting thought. But then came the bad fairy, and she stipulated that every German could possess only two of these attributes. She left the Fuhrer then with intelligent Nazis who were not honest, honest Nazis who had no brains, and honest and intelligent citizens who were not Nazis.’ Bielenberg comments ‘A funny little story, perhaps, but one not far from the truth. For it seemed to me that those three categories of Germans did indeed live and work together side by side, unable, because of the nature of the regime, to maintain more than the most superficial contact with each other.’
The Past Is Myself, 1968, pp.51-52
A second quotation, from an entirely different source, demonstrates how complex and far-reaching the Jewish sense of identity was, in relation to nationality and national ties. The speaker here was a 69-year-old woman painter from a family of Jewish intellectuals, speaking to a Western reporter from the New York Times in September 1993. She would have been born in 1924, and thus a young woman during the Second World War:
‘Deep in my mind I have the feeling that I am not Russian, though we grew up in Russian culture. Being Jewish was a fact, though not much discussed. For me, Moscow is the capital, the centre, and it is important to me that I live here. If I emigrate, I couldn’t live in a second-rate city in one-storey America, or in some grassy English province. Here I feel I’m someone, there, I’m nobody.’
Quoted in Bernard Wasserstein: Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945 1996, p259.
In the world-view of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, the Slavic people and the Eastern Territories were entirely at the service of the Aryan German ‘Master Race’. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s Chief of Staff, in his Eight Principles for the Government of the Eastern Territories, set out the terms for the future uncompromisingly. His words are filled with contempt and loathing:
‘The Slavs are to work for us. Insofar as we don’t need them they may die. Therefore compulsory vaccination and (the use of) German health services are superfluous. The fertility of the Slavs is undesirable. They may use contraceptives and practise abortion, the more, the better. Education is dangerous. It is sufficient if they can count up to a hundred. At best an education is admirable which produces useful servants for us. Every educated person is a future enemy. Religion we leave to them as a means of diversion. As to food, they are not to get more than necessary. We are the masters, we come first.’
Quoted by Daniel Goldhagen: Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity Little Brown (UK) 2010, p365.
At one time there was a big debate over the ‘intentionalist’ and ‘functionalist’ views of the Jewish Holocaust, a debate which has been overtaken in recent years by new research and the blurring of older historical emphases. The intentionalists were those who argued that the complete physical extermination of the Jews in Europe, wholesale racial purification, was there from the very beginning, as a central plank of Nazi policy, set out in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The functionalists, on the other hand, were those who insisted that the ‘Final Solution’, which was arrived at during the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in 1941, was not part of Nazi policy during the 1930s, except as a very distant goal, and despite wholesale anti-Semitic dogma and legal and employment restrictions for Jews in Germany. This view argues that the notion of destroying the Jews by industrial mass-murder in specially designed camps emerged only gradually as a result of changing circumstances, in particular the progress of the war from 1941 onwards. The view that total extermination of the Jews came only at the end of an intensive process of repression, restriction and of course wholesale destruction (Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938) during the pre-war period, and was part of the experience of total war in Europe, was set out by the American historian Karl Schleunes (1937-) in his book The Twisted Road to Auschwitz in 1970. Virtually everyone now accepts this. In his last book, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1939-49, published in 2016, the late David Cesarani (1956-2015) has argued that the persecution of the Jews was not always, or consistently, the Nazis’ central purpose. Food shortages and military failures led to the creation of the ghettoes, he states, and ultimately it was the state of war in Europe which brought about the policy of wholesale genocide. Cesarani’s account of the fate of the Jews carries on to 1949/50, by drawing specific attention to the way thousands of Jews continued to be held in Displaced Persons’ camps for some years after the end of the war.
In his Worse than War, Daniel Goldhagen showed himself to be at least partly intentionalist, declaring that the Germans were only interested in non-lethal anti-Jewish measures, insofar as they led ultimately to complete extermination. These were the words of Friedrich Ubelhoer, the senior civil administrator in the Lodz District of Poland (General Government), speaking of the Lodz Ghetto, which was actually an unusually productive one. The extreme language is typical, the sentiments and mentality beyond description:
‘The creation of the Ghetto is, of course, only a transition measure. I shall determine at what time and with what means the Ghetto - and thereby the city of Lodz - will be cleansed of Jews. The final goal, at any rate, must be that we burn out this bubonic plague utterly.’ (Goldhagen’s translation) Quoted in Raoul Hilberg: The Destruction of the European Jews (New York 1973 edition, p149.
Anna Pawelczynska was a sociologist and Polish survivor from Auschwitz who set out the categories of what later historians, such as Goldhagen, have come to describe as the doctrine of eliminationism, based on race. In 1979, Pawelczynska published Values and Violence in Auschwitz: A Sociological Analysis (Yale UP). Eliminationism was the policy of administered death in a triple ranking, replacing national characteristics. The first rank win the ‘sequence of dying’ was given to prisoners of Jewish descent, and Gypsies /Romanies. They were to be killed using assembly line techniques. The second rank were the Slavs, especially Poles and Soviet citizens. They were to be dealt with by a mixture of mass murder and general sterilisation. The other nations of Europe formed the third category, countries for which the German policy of extermination (or at least exploitation) had not yet been set out categorically. Only prisoners of German nationality were excluded from this plan. It was far more likely that they would survive in the longer run, while other non-German prisoners died. (See Pawelczynska, pp54-55)
Before reviewing the memoirs of some of the survivors from the Lagers and the ghettos, it is important to remind us of the casual anti-Semitism, sometimes vicious, which was widespread even in a nominally tolerant country like Britain. Many Jews had fled her from Germany (though there could have been many more) and the peak of this exodus was the never-to-be-forgotten Kindertransport scheme of 1939-40, to bring Jewish children to Britain from Europe, many of whom had already lost or were about to lose their parents. The equivocal behaviour of Lord Darlington (fictitious grandee and landowner in Kazuo Ishiguro’s famous novel Remains of the Day) is a good example of someone in a position of power and influence who was misled by circumstances, and allowed two Jewish children in his care to be re-patriated to Germany from his great country home, to face an almost certain death. As the historian Susan Pedersen has commented: ‘It’s true that the House of Commons didn’t pay enough attention to the Nazi menace in the mid-30s—but that may be because it spent much of its time crafting the Government of Indi a Act,’ (Pedersen’ s review of Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, Guardian 31 October 2015). W.H. Auden famously spoke of the 1930s as being ‘this low dishonest decade’. He also observed that ‘History may say Alas, but cannot help or pardon.’
I quote here two small instances of negative British attitudes to the Jews, from the autobiography of the writer Philip Oakes (1928-2005), born in the Potteries, at school for a time in Wolverhampton, then in an orphanage at Edgworth, to the north of Bolton. While in Hanley, Philip’s mother (a widow from 1932) became friendly with a Mrs Aarons. This Jewish lady was the wife of a successful optician in Hanley, and was very kind to Mrs Oakes in various ways. The boy soon realised that Mrs Aarons was unlike any of his other relatives. ‘She did not criticise,’ he says, ‘She did not reproach. She drew no comparisons. She thought my mother was brave, self-reliant, deserving and put-upon, and frequently told her so.’ Later, he sets out the context:
‘We learned something of the Aarons’ family history. There were branches, it seemed all over the world. Her parents lived in Manchester. She had relatives in Austria and Germany. An older brother had emigrated to America, and established a business as a dealer in precious stones in Los Angeles. In Germany, she said, terrible things were happening. There had been arrests, property had been seized. The letters she received were upsetting because they were full of hints rather than facts. ‘They don’t want to frighten me, she said, thumping her chest but I know, I know! Worse was to come, she prophesied. There were camps in Germany which no one dared talk about. People disappeared. No one was safe.’
Philip Oakes, From Middle England; A Memory of the 1930s and 1940s Andre Deutsch 1980/92, Penguin 1983 p131.
But the Aarons decided that England was not for them, and in due course emigrated to the USA. In a brilliant and evocative passage pointing up the anti-Semitism underlying so much of British society at the time, Oakes describes the behaviour and attitudes of his Uncle Frank, when he reveals that his mother’s close friend’s name was Mrs Aarons:
‘My uncle stopped in mid-stride. ‘Who did you say?’ ‘Mrs Aarons’, I said again. ‘She lived next door to Aunt Jenny. She’s gone to America.’ I heard myself babbling as if I could disguise my initial blunder by covering it with more and more words. It was useless. ‘Are you telling me,’ said my uncle ominously, ‘that your mother has a friend called Mrs Aarons?’
Yes, she did. She’s gone away now. An Israelite?’ he said, I don’t believe you. No sister of mine would lower herself.
His face was purple like the dusk that came striding in from the sea. He was angry with me, but I sensed a greater rage building up from behind his words which was directed not at any single person, but against generations who he feared, of whom he knew nothing, but who he could blame for every disappointment in his own life. It was stupid, I thought. It was not fair that I had to defend Mrs Aarons. She was not even in England to defend herself. But as I listened to my uncle’s tirade, I knew the panic she had felt when she described the arrests and the disappearance of her relatives in Germany.’
Philip Oakes, From Middle England, p183.
A further illustration is from a celebrated writer of the period, the Catholic G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who was a fierce opponent of German racism, hated the Nazis, and was utterly against appeasing them. Chesterton was also a Zionist, but went into print to say, very strangely, in an essay entitled ‘The Problem of Zionism’ that Jews who held high public office ought to dress as Orientals, to indicate what the regarded as their ultimate allegiance. His argument was that Judaism was transitional, and that by definition Jews could not identify first and foremost with any particular state. Chesterton stated, correctly, that the family was the basis of the state, but, bizarrely, that ‘With the Jews the family is generally divided among the nations.. It is in its nature intolerable for a national standpoint that a man admittedly powerful in one nation, should be bound to a man equally powerful in another by ties more personal even than nationality.’ The journalist Melanie McDonagh, writing in The Spectator for 24 August 2013, pointed out that this was the argument often used against Roman Catholicism, suggesting that Catholics cannot readily identify with the state because their first allegiance is to Rome. Such an argument was used by hard line American conservatives against President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and after.
Writing much more recently as a German Jewish intellectual living in Berlin from his birth in 1923 until his emigration with his family to the USA and Canada in 1939, Peter Gay (original German name Peter Froehlich) published a short memoir My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin in 2000. In his preface, Gay says that his friends had told him that writing the memoir would bring him peace of mind, and provide a much-needed catharsis. However, he admits that:
‘…the promise was not fulfilled. My emotions remain mixed, and ease of mind plays at best a subordinate role. I have derived considerable satisfaction from putting on record my contempt for those who, with condescension and hindsight, have berated the German Jews for attempting to blend into German society, and for not emigrating sooner. I felt gratitude to those who saved us in the desperate times of 1938 and 1939 - and rage, surprisingly fierce after all these years, rage at the world for having been so callous to our plight. My hatred for Nazis past and present did not grow with the passage of time, because it could not do so without committing mayhem on the next German I encountered. No catharsis there!’
(op.cit., Yale UP, 2000)
Later in the same Preface, Peter Gay says:
‘I had heard, more often than I liked, disparagement of German Jews in the United States, usually laced with self-righteous anger. The decisive confrontation came about four years ago in Berlin (he means 1996) where I had an eye-opening discussion with an influential, intelligent and decent German public servant with whom I spoke openly about current politics and ancient (which is to say: Nazi) history. One day, looking worried and puzzled, he confessed his failure to understand why Germany’s Jews in Hitler’s Reich had gone to their slaughter like lambs (he actually used this cliché). His admission inadvertently demonstrated to me more powerfully than ever that even the well informed were ignorant about the life of Jews under the Nazis. Most seemed content to rehash facile legends, unaware that the truth was much more complicated.’ (op.cit., pxii )
The same anger is evident in the memoir of another distinguished German historian, Joachim Fest, later a biographer of Hitler, who was not even Jewish. But his devoutly Catholic family, who opposed the Nazis in Berlin, suffered grievously for their opinions and behaviour. Fest’s brother Wolfgang was killed in the war; his father lost his much-loved job as a teacher in Berlin in the 1930s, yet had no option but to obey the draft and joint the German army in the 1940s. Johann (the father) was not injured, but he was interned as a P.O.W. in Russia, and returned home in due course with his health shattered having lost a third of his body-weight. Joachim Fest (1926-2006) became one of Germany’s leading historians in the 1970s, but his account of his boyhood and young manhood is filed with bitterness and resentment. He knew Jews in Berlin in the 1930s, but they lived in different districts and attended different schools.
His parents had many Jewish friends who visited the Fest household, such as the great joker Walter Goderski, the immensely cultivated Dr Meyer, David Jalowitz and Walther Rosenthal with his wife Sonja. On one occasion the very quiet Sonja Rosenthal spoke up to contradict her husband Walther’s assertion that ‘the world had never before been so brutish and cruel’. Sonja said, in front of everyone ‘You are mistaken, absolutely mistaken. Because there has never been a different world, different people, and more peaceful conditions than today. Life has always been quite unreasonable and extremely cruel. Then she fell silent again quietly examining the guests around her.’ Not I: A German Childhood 2006/2012 p87
The father, Johann Fest, could not understand the success of Hitler, and the way both the French and the British seemed to abase themselves before him, to fear him. He thought the Anschluss of 1938 might make Germany ‘more Catholic’ and drive out the demons of hatred and intolerance. But soon he heard about the persecution of the Jews in Austria, and was appalled to hear that the author of a book he loved, A Cultural History of the Modern Age, Egon Friedell, had thrown himself out of a window as he was on the point of being arrested in Vienna. Johann Fest wondered out loud, many times over, why ‘there was this mixture of greed for advantage and arrogance breaking out in Germany, and asked ‘why did the Nazi swindle not simply collapse in the face of the laughter of the educated?’ He felt that the ‘ordinary people’ should have protested much more, as they (in his view) usually had ‘more character.’ Not I: A German Childhood, p86
It is easy for western Gentiles to overlook the sharp divisions among the Jews themselves, quite apart from the usual distinction between the Sephardic Jews for Spain and the Ashkenazy Jews for Central Europe and beyond. The most successful writer in worldly terms in Austro-German literature of the period was Stefan Zweig (1882-1942). He died in a suicide pact with his wife escaping from Europe in 1942, en route for Brazil. There were many other suicides among writers in 1939-40, among them Walter Hasenclever, Ernst Toller and the journalist and critic Walter Benjamin. One Jewish writer and journalist who died a natural death in 1939 (form lung cancer) was Joseph Roth (1894-1939). For many years he was a forgotten figure, but his reputation has soared in recent times in part through the careful translations of his work by Michael Hofmann. Roth drew attention to the Ostjuden (Jews from the East), who had been looked down on since the 18th century by German, Austrian, Hungarian and French Jews, though many of these were actually immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Roth observes with self-mocking irony:
‘The more western the origin of a Jew, the more Jews there are for him to look down on. The Frankfurt Jew despises the Berlin Jew, the Berlin Jew despises the Viennese Jew, the Viennese Jew despises the Warsaw Jew. Then there are Jews from all the way back to Galicia, upon whom they all look down, and that’s where I come from, the lowest of all Jews.’
Joseph Roth, author of the novel The Radetzky March, quoted in David Bronson’s 1973 biography, p43
One of the most difficult areas for historians of this subject is the existence internationally of Holocaust deniers, those people, many or most of them unchangeably anti-Semitic, who continue to maintain that the Holocaust as presented by serious historians since the 1940s did not take place, or took place on a vastly smaller scale. In Germany and Austria, Holocaust denial is punishable by lengthy prison sentences. This seems very appropriate. Other countries are vigilant about this issue too. In the UK, a High Court Judge convicted the historian David Irving of a whole series of connected offences, from outright racism and anti-Semitism to falsification of history and Holocaust denial, in Irving’s several books about the period. The trial was the outcome of a libel suit by Irving himself against Penguin Books and the writer Deborah Lipstadt, who had accused Irving of Holocaust denial and of falsification of the historical record in the interest of allegedly lying about the past. No Auschwitz survivors were called to the witness box, as this would in Deborah Lipstadt’s words, ‘have exposed people who have suffered mightily to denigration of their experiences, and terrible attacks (by Irving and his legal counsel) which none of us wanted when it was not necessary.’ Richard J. Evans, the historian and at that time Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, who is a leading authority on this period, was a principal witness against Irving, and later wrote up this trial and its background in the compelling book Telling Lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, Hitler and the David Irving Trial (Verso 2002). Richard Evans wrote the following:
‘It was important throughout the trial to keep the focus on Irving himself all the time, to plug away at his distortions and manipulations of the documentary evidence, and to expose the racist and extremist opinions that had led him to engage in such a betrayal of the historian’s calling. Putting survivors into the witness box would have taken the focus off him and put it on to them. Even the slightest slip of memory, easy enough after more than half a century, would have been enough for him to have cast doubt on the reality of their experiences. Irving’s stock-in trade is taking a small error inconsistency in evidence and blowing it up out of all proportion so that the most far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from it. Making camp survivors relive their experiences in court was, as the Eichmann trial vividly illustrated, bad enough: that trial, in 1961, depended to a very large extent on the testimony of survivors, and many of them found it deeply upsetting, even traumatic, to provide it despite the fact that the questioning was as sympathetic as possible under the circumstances. How much more upsetting would it have been to have the validity of that testimony questioned, in the most brutal and aggressive manner, by someone who refused to believe It?’ (p269)
David Irving lost his plea, and was sentenced to a prison term, which he chose to serve in Austria. He was also ordered to pay the full costs of the trial, which bankrupted him by 2002. His appeal against the verdict was refused. Yet this inveterate racist was soon back, even though he stated publicly that he was no longer a Holocaust denier, in the light of new evidence. In 2007, he was a joint speaker with Nick Griffin, at that time leader of the BNP (British National Party) at the Oxford Union. Irving arrived in Oxford surrounded by his team of bodyguards.
At the opposite extreme is the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss citizen born in 1941, who in 1995 published Bruchstucke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939-1948, quickly translated into twelve languages, and appearing in English in 2001 as Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. This was an account of a Jewish child (himself), born in Latvia, his family slaughtered in Riga, living alone in the Nazi camps of Majdanek and then in Auschwitz. The deep effect of the book, by a man who was a professional clarinettist and instrument maker, was achieved by the way it was written, from the viewpoint of a child, using simple and fragmentary language to create a sense of immediacy and truth. It obviously genuinely moved a great many people, and won awards in the USA, France and the UK. The book tells how the young Binjamin eventually reached an orphanage in Switzerland, by way of Krakow. There, he was ultimately adopted by a childless couple, the Dossekkers, who were only interested in the present, and actively tried to suppress his memories of his years of incarceration.
According to Wilkomirski, he underwent psychotherapy in middle life, and as a result was able to retrieve his dark memories in the form presented in the book. International reading tours followed, but this led to Wilkomirski’s downfall. First of all, a young Swiss Jewish journalist, Daniel Ganzfried, whose father had been in Auschwitz, interviewed Wikomirski for a magazine. Ganzfried found the Wilkomirski story incredible, and exposed it as a fantasy. Far from being Latvian born, Wilkomirski was in fact a Swiss born Gentile, who had been born near the Swiss capital, Berne, the illegitimate son of Yvonne Grosjean. His real name was Bruno, and he had been given for adoption by her to the Dossekkers in 1945. They brought him up in relative prosperity in Zurich. Wilkomirski had never been anywhere near the camp ‘except as a tourist’ as Ganzfried said, and had invented the whole story. Despite Wilkomirski’s tearful protests and denials at this exposure, people were naturally shocked, and his supporters and admirers fell away quickly. Elena Lappin, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, wrote about the affair in Granta, while his Swiss agent, Eva Koralnik, hired Dr Stefan Maechler, a Zurich based historian, to write a substantial report on the facts of the case. It turned out that the young Bruno had felt betrayed by his real mother, Yvonne Grosjean, and allowed this sense of betrayal to colour his entire life story, even though the Dossekkers had given him a comfortable upbringing, and, by encouraging him to learn the clarinet, had also provided him with a livelihood. Inevitably the book lost its status, except with a few who still maintained that it was an extraordinary and powerful evocation of suffering, whatever its complete falsehood as a record of actual historical events. In relation to the Irving trial and its outcome Deborah Lipstadt declared that although she had won the case, Holocaust denial was still out there, an active force for evil, ‘like a slow invasion of termites’ as she put it. Wilkomirski’s fabricated memoir might be said to have added fuel to the Irving fire, and whatever slender case might be made on Wikomirski’s behalf, that case would be outweighed hugely by the sense of a great lie having been told, in, of all places, the acutely sensitive area of the European Jewish tragedy.
2. Elie Wiesel
I have selected ten figures from among the survivors who wrote about their experience in the Lager. Three of these, all men, eventually committed suicide, including the incomparable Primo Levi, who threw himself down the stairwell of his family flat at 32 Corso Re Umberto in Turin, in 1987. In his case, the reason for his suicide was almost certainly depression resulting from pressure of family circumstances, rather than memories of his time in Auschwitz. Appalling though the experiences of the five women memoirists were, they each had an exceptional toughness and will to survive. All lived to a very good age, and one Ruth Kluger, was still alive in 2016, living in the USA.
Elie Wiesel was a Romanian Jew, born in Sighet, then in Hungary, now part of Romania. He and his family were deported to Auschwitz, where his mother Sarah and youngest sister Tzipora perished, though Wiesel and his two older sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, survived. Elie was transported to Buchenwald (north of Weimar) with his father, who died before the camp was liberated by advancing Allied troops on 10 April 1945. Later on Wiesel studied at the Sorbonne and became a journalist. La Nuit (Night) was published in 1958, though was not translated into English until 1981. It was part of a trilogy, which included Dawn and The Accident. Wiesel settled in New York, and has had a remarkable academic career in the USA, becoming Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at City University, New York. He taught ‘The Literature of Memory’ as Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. In 1980, Wiesel became founding Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and the following year, with his wife Marion, he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
Night is a short book of 116 pages (in Stella Rodway’s Penguin translation) dedicated to the memory of his parents and his little sister Tzipora. It is an account of almost unceasing brutality in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, with the father, Schlomo, at its heroic centre. Just how Schlomo managed to survive the constant beatings he received from various Kapos, some with a metal bar, for as long as he did, remains a wonder. The boy Elie, who did his utmost to help and protect his father to the end, was fifteen years old, sixteen at the time he was in Buchenwald. He nearly died of food poisoning, in the fortnight following liberation, and in the final sentences of Night, gazes at himself in a mirror, something he had not been able to do since the Sighet ghetto. ‘From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me,’ he says. ‘The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.’ (p126) Wiesel did not marry until 1969, when he was 41, and he and Marion gave the name Schlomo to their only son, in memory of Elie’s father.
From the many grim stories he has to tell, I select the one about the young French girl in the warehouse at Buna (Auschwitz III). Seeming to Elie to be Jewish, but passing as an Aryan, she apparently knew no German, and Elie knew no French, so there was no conversation. One day, without warning, the dreaded Kapo Idek beat Elie severely. The boy, who of course could not retaliate, eventually dragged himself out of a corner, his whole body aching. Then came ‘…a cool hand, wiping my blood stained forehead. It was the French girl. She gave me her mournful smile and slipped a bit of bread into my hand. She looked into my eyes. I felt that she wanted to say something but was checked by fear. For a long moment she stayed like that, then her face cleared, and she said to me in almost perfect German: ‘Bite your lip, little brother…don’t cry. Keep your anger and hatred for another day, for later on. The day will come, but not now. Grit your teeth, and wait…’
Wiesel goes on to relate how he was on the Metro in Paris years later, and looked up to see a strikingly beautiful dark haired young woman opposite him. ‘I had seen those eyes before somewhere. It was she.’ At first she did not recognise him, but then he told her she had been at Buna (Auschwitz) in 1944, in the electrical warehouse. She had remembered the little Jewish boy, and Idek the Kapo, and they began a proper conversation, continued on the terrace of a café later on. He discovered that the girl was actually Jewish herself, from a religious Jewish family. She told him:
‘During the Occupation I obtained forged papers and passed myself off as an Aryan. That’s how I was enlisted in the forced labour groups, and when I was deported to Germany, I escaped the concentration camp. At the warehouse, no one knew I could speak German. That would have aroused suspicions. Saying those few words to you was risky: But I knew you wouldn’t give me away…’ (Night, pp64-65)
In The Jew Today (Random House, 1978) Wiesel wrote, not for the first or the last time, of trying to describe the indescribable: ‘ Even if you studied all the documentation, even if you listened to all the testimonies, visited all the camps and museums and read all the diaries, you would not be able to approach the portal of that eternal night. That is the tragedy of the survivor’s mission. He must tell a story that cannot be told. He must deliver a message that cannot be delivered.’
Elie Wiesel is, with Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of a handful of Lager survivors who not only retained his strong religious faith, but wrote in later life as a religious mystic.
3. Jean Amery
Jean Amery (1912-1978) was an Austrian, born Hans Chaim Mayer, and was brought up a Catholic by his mother after his father was killed in action in 1916. He enrolled as a student of philosophy and literature in Vienna, but could only afford to study there intermittently. He left Austria after the German Anschluss in 1938, travelling first to France, then to Belgium. By this time, he had married a Jewish woman, against the wishes of his Catholic mother. After 1940 Amery was part of the resistance movement against the German occupation of Belgium. The inevitable result was that he was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, and sent to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, then Bergen-Belsen, before being liberated, aged 33, in 1945. At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its realities was originally entitled Jenseits von Schuld und Suehne (beyond Guilt and Atonement) and was published only in 1964. The English title was suggested by his translators, Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington, Indiana, 1980). As time went on, Amery became steadily more depressed, and in 1976 he published a study with the title On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. But in between these, Amery had written on popular culture, including jazz and ‘teenage idols’ (1960/61) on the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann (1963) and on the figure of Charles Bovary in Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1978). Some of his works were translated into French (all by the same publisher, Actes Sud of Arles) and some into English, mostly published by Indiana UP at Bloomington. These were not always the same ones. Amery’s collected works in German were published in nine volumes between 2000 and 2008 by Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart, edited by Irene Heidelberger-Leonard. She eventually published a biography, Jean Amery: Revolte in der Resignation, in 2004, soon translated into French, and subsequently Spanish and English (2010), the latter by the leading Anglo-German translator Anthea Bell. W.G. Sebald has a whole section (pp147-172) on Amery in On the Natural History of Destruction (Penguin 2003). Amery took his own life on October 17, 1978, shortly before what would have been his 66th birthday.
As I have said, At the Mind’s Limits has as its subtitle ‘Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and its Realities.’ It was reissued in 1977, and Amery, in Brussels, wrote a Preface to this reissue, dated Winter 1976, in which he declares the need for ‘Enlightenment’, which he knows ‘can properly fulfil its task only if it sets to work with passion’. He states in the Preface:
‘…the time has come when every contemporary of the Nazi horror must take action - whatever his action may achieve. The political as well as Jewish Nazi victim, which I was and am, cannot be silent when, under the banner of anti-Zionism, the old, wretched anti-Semitism ventures forth. The impossibility of being a Jew becomes the necessity to be one, and that means: a vehemently protesting Jew. Let this book…be a witness not only to what real fascism and singular Nazism were, but let it also be an appeal to German youth for introspection…’
Jean Amery (Hans Maier)
Amery was tortured in Fort Breendonck, the ‘unspeakable vault’ half way between Brussels and Antwerp, a place he notes with heavy irony is now a Belgian national museum. His chapter on Torture (pp21-40) in At the Mind’s Limits, was the main, most hard-hitting and affecting chapter in the book, which as a whole has been described as an ‘autobiographical interrogation’, quite different in tone and texture from Elie Wiesel’s Night. Amery’s frankness and honesty about torture’s reality is of a unique order. ‘The tortured person’, he declares, ‘never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may, according to inclination, call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering of the shoulder joints…Only through torture did he learn that a living person can be transformed so thoroughly into flesh and by that, while still alive, be partly made into a prey of death. Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow…will not be regained…It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules.’
4. Mary Berg
In comparison to the dark, powerful, introverted writings of Wiesel and Amery, the Diary of Mary berg (Nee Wattenberg) is a very different kind of document. Born in 1925, she was one of two daughters of an American born mother (with a U.S. passport) and a Polish art dealer father. The family was comfortably off. In the autumn of 1939, she was fifteen years old. The German army invaded her native city of Lodz, causing the family to flee on foot and on bicycles to Warsaw, seventy miles away. The Warsaw Ghetto came into existence on 15 November 1940, when, as Mary put it ‘Jews were forbidden to move outside the boundaries formed by certain streets. Wall, nearly ten feet high were going up rapidly, all built by Jewish masons driven on by Nazi soldier overseers.’ This brick wall appeared on the jacket of the Diary in 1945, part of Mary’s cover design.
The Berg family (with their vital foreign passports) lived on Sienna Street, but in July 1942 were placed in the Pawiak prison, near the centre of the Warsaw Ghetto. Most others, some 300,000 people, were deported to death camps. Eventually, on 20 January 1943, Mary Berg was transferred to the Vittel internment camp in France, from which she and her family boarded a prisoner-of-war exchange ship sailing from Lisbon to New York in March 1944. Of Vittel, Mary said (25 January 1943): ‘I feel as though I have been in Vittel for a long time. We are living in paradise as compared with our three years in the Ghetto. We have a separate room on the fourth floor of an elegant hotel. It is clean, and each one has a bed for himself. What more could one ask for?’
Mary Berg (left) with her sister in the Warsaw Ghetto circa 1941
At the time of her departure from Lisbon, Mary was only nineteen. She had with her a set of twelve diaries, written in shorthand, giving a full account of her life in the Warsaw Ghetto. They are an admirable example of straight, factual reportage. Mary as an attractive, normal girl to judge from the surviving photographs. She had a regular boyfriend, Romek, in Warsaw, as well as an admirer (from a distance) Tadek Saajer, who joined the Ambulance Service in the Ghetto. There is a photograph of Tadek in his full uniform, with two friends, walking down a crowded street, dated December 1941.
The tone of the diary is exactly what one might expect - observant, factual, matter-of-fact, and naturally compassionate, as well as filled with loathing at the displays of cruelty and aggression she witnessed. Underlying everything is her intrinsic common sense and human feeling. For example, on the night of 10 January 1941, she reports the following:
‘Last night we went through several hours of mortal terror. At about 11.00pm, a group of Nazi gendarmes broke into the room where our house committee was holding a meeting. The Nazis searched the men, took away whatever money they found, and then ordered the women to strip, hoping to find concealed diamonds. Our subtenant, Mrs R., who happened to be there, courageously protested, declaring that she would not undress in the presence of men. For this she received a resounding slap in the face, and was searched even more harshly than the other women. The women were kept naked for more than two hours while the Nazis put their revolvers to their breasts and private parts, and threatened to shoot them all if they did not disgorge dollars or diamonds. The beasts did not leave until 2.00am, carrying a scanty loot of a few watches, some paltry rings and a small sum in Polish zlotys. They did not find either diamonds or dollars. The inhabitants of the Ghetto expect such attacks every night, but this does not stop the meetings of the house committees.’
Berg, Diary, Pentlin edition, p27
Mary’s sheer practicality and realism is revealed soon afterwards in the entry for 17 February 1941:
‘The Jewish community administration is completing its preparations for a course in machine drawing, architecture and graphic arts. I have registered for it. I received a typewritten prospectus, which explains that the course is being opened by the special permission of the German authorities, and is part of the general programme for training locksmiths, electro-technicians, and other artisans from among the young Jewish people who have no trade. We all realize that the Germans’ real intention is to train workers for their war industries workers who will work without wages.’
She reports that there were almost six hundred candidates, even though the number of vacancies was ‘only a few dozen.’ Mary quickly realized that ‘pull’ or ‘connections’ was the only way of securing place, and admits to giving way to the corrupt system. In Chapter Six, from Late July to Late September 1941, she discusses the typhus epidemic which was raging in the Ghetto, with over 200 deaths so far. Mary reports on the despairing doctors, lack of medicines, and overcrowded hospitals. A father is described as carrying his ‘fairly grown-up son’ along Lorenzo Street, both of them dressed in rags. The boy’s face, she says, was ‘burning red’, and he was raving deliriously. There was little the father could do, except lay the boy down on the steps leading to the hospital. A nurse quickly appeared, and began to scold he father, who wept bitterly. Soon the boy fell silent and receded into a coma, and died shortly afterwards. Many reports that ‘…a little black cart, a free service to the community, appeared, and the still-warm body of the boy was added to the several others that had been picked up in adjoining streets. For some time, the father gazed at the cart as it moved away. Then he disappeared.’ Diary, pp75-76
Mary’s father secured a job as a janitor, in July 1941, so that they were given a better apartment, on Sienna Street, near an animated newsstand. This sold smuggled newspapers, as officially only the Gazeta Zydowska was allowed in the Ghetto. Consequently, Mary was able to see several others, including the notorious Nazi Voelkischer Beobachter. But Mary comments that ‘sometimes the official Nazi newspapers contain interesting items concerning the various ghettoes in Poland.’
There is much comment on the price of food throughout the Diary, indeed the price of everything. An elderly woman sold Jewish armbands of various qualities and prices near the newsstand. Mary reports that:
‘…the most expensive are of linen with a hand-embroidered Star of David and rubber bands. These armbands are very much in demand in the Ghetto because the Germans are very sensitive on this score, and when they notice a Jew wearing a crumpled or dirty armband, they beat him at once.’ (p79)
Typhus is one killer, scurvy another. The epicentre for this is Grzybowska, where, reports Mary, ‘the streets are full of starving people who come to the community for help. There are a great number of almost naked children, whose parents have died, and who sit in rags on the streets. Their bodies are horribly emaciated, and one can see their bones through their parchment-like yellow skin. This is the first stage of scurvy; in the last stage of this terrible disease, the same little bodies are blown up and covered with festering wounds. Some of these children toss around and groan, as they have lost their toes. They no longer have a human appearance, and are more like monkeys than children. They no longer beg for bread, but for death.’
Then Mary cries out in the Diary in the first person: ‘Where are you, foreign correspondents? Why don’t you come here and describe the sensational scenes of the Ghetto? No doubt you don’t want to spoil your appetite. Or are you satisfied with what the Nazis tell you - that they locked up the Jews in the Ghetto in order to protect the Aryan population from epidemics and dirt?’ (p80)
The fact is that Mary Berg’s Diary would probably never have seen the light of day but for her chance meeting with the Yiddish journalist S.L. Schneiderman when she landed in New York in April 1944. It was he, himself an escapee from Nazi Europe, who realised what the Diary represented. Over several months, he worked with her in transcribing the shorthand text of the twelve spiral notebooks into Polish, editing and adding as they went along. Schneiderman produced a translation into Yiddish of the Polish MS, and hired two colleagues, Norbert Guterman (1900-1984) and Sylvia Glass (1912-2006) to translate the Polish version into English. Thus the work appeared as Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary in February 1945, before the war was even over, from the New York publisher L.B. Fischer.
Mary Berg, so relieved to be living with her intact family in a free country, a free society, enjoyed the publicity she received for a few years up until the early 1950s, but it is clear that temperamentally she wished to forget the horrors of the 1940-43 years in Warsaw. Consequently, the book eventually went out of print, and it was a later generation which brought about its reissue. This was in a completely new edition in 2007, by Dr Susan Lee Pentlin, who provided a superb contextual Introduction. She fully understands that Mary had lost interest in the Diary from around 1952, and had withdrawn completely into private life. Dr Pentlin makes it clear that she did not know what had happened to Mary, who had turned 30 in 1954. If she is still alive in 2015 she will have turned 91. We just do not know what form her life in the USA took.
5. Tadeusz Borowski
‘All of us walk around naked. The delousing is finally over, and our striped suits are back from the tanks of Cylcone B solution, an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers. Only the inmates in the blocks cut from ours by the ‘Spanish goats’ (crossed wooden beams wrapped in barbed wire) still have nothing to wear. But all the same, all of us walk around naked: the heat is unbearable. The camp has been sealed off tight… From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. - the Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty-eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between the blockhouses.’
These are the first sentences of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, the bitter title of Borowski’s collection in English translation, published in Polish in 1959,and in the U.S.A. in translation in 1967,then by Penguin in 1976. Interestingly, the copyright in these stories resided at the time with Borowski’s widow, Maria. He himself had finally reached the point of no return on 1 July 1951, when he gassed himself, only three days after Maria had borne him a daughter.
Tadeusz Borowski was born a Ukrainian, I the Polish Community at Zhytomyr, then part of the Soviet Union. Both his parents were sent to Gulags, his father in 1926 and his mother in 1930. He and his brother lived with an aunt during those years, but were repatriated to Poland in 1932. Both parents were released by 1934. The young Tadeusz, already writing poetry, joined the Polish underground in Warsaw, living with his girlfriend Maria. He was arrested by the Gestapo in February 1943, and sent to Auschwitz, becoming a slave-labourer. Maria also ended up om Auschwitz, and, miraculously, Tadeusz was able to keep up contact with her. In 1944 he was sent to the Dautmergen subcamp of Natzweiler-Struthof Lager in the Vosges mountains in France, near Natzwiller and Schirmeck, some fifty kilometres south-west of Strasbourg. Later still he went to the far better known Dachau-Allach, near Munich. This was liberated by American forces on 1 May 1945, and Borowski joined the ranks of Displaced Persons in a camp nearby. He went to Paris, returned to Poland, in 1946 and married Maria in December that year, following her reluctant and delayed return from Sweden. Tadeusz Borowski worked as a journalist, joined the Polish Workers’ party (which was Communist-controlled) in 1948, and maintained his faith in Communism at least for some time. It was when a close friend was arrested and tortured by the Communists that Borowski lost all confidence in the new regime. An affair with a young girl in Warsaw in 1949 had complicated his personal life, and Borowski took his own life, aged only 28.
The Introduction to the English edition of Borowski’s selected stories is by Jan Kott, the Polish theatre director, famous in Britain for his 1973 critical study Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Kott, a great admirer of Borowski’s writings, states that two of his stories, This way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and A Day at Harmenz (written in Munich when he was freed) were published in Poland before his arrival there. He says that they caused a shock, and that the Communist Party had expected something more ideological. Given the mood of the time, that is not surprising. Though Borowski ‘was accused of amorality, decadence and nihilism’, his talent was obvious enough, and he was welcomed everywhere and encouraged by the CP itself. He became a CP member early in 1948.
In Kott’s view, there were three background causes behind Borowski’s lamentable and wasteful suicide. One was the fact that he had become involved with a young girl after his return from Berlin to Warsaw. The second was the arrest in 1951 of an old friend by Polish Security, the same old friend whose apartment Borowski had visited in 1943, searching for Maria, leading to the torture of them both by the Gestapo. The third thread, mysteriously, Kott identifies as a secret spying mission in which Borowski was engaged, the outcome of which was successful, so that he was given another on his return to Warsaw. But he had, it seems, made two unsuccessful attempts to kill himself earlier; this time he succeeded, ending, as Kott remarks, the long story of this modern Tristan and Isolde.
6. Charlotte Delbo
Mary Berg’s Diary, for all its remarkable truth and frankness, was very much that of a young woman, at the outset of her life, and at the height of her youthful ambition. The writings of Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985) present a great contrast. She was a French Gentile woman, and a Resistance worker married to another Resistance worker, George Dudach, who was captured and shot by the Nazis in May 1942. Charlotte, an intellectual and a woman of formidable strength of mind, was one of 239 women, rounded up in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz on Convoy 31000. Most of these women were Jewish, but Charlotte was not. She was one of only 49 who returned to France. That fortunate group included Marie-Claude Vailant-Courturier (later a Communist politician), and Genevieve de Gaulle the General’s niece.
Delbo’s family was of Italian stock. At the age of 23, she became stenographer to Louis Jouvet, a leading theatre director. She went with Jouvet’s company to Latin America early in 1941, but returned to France on hearing that Jacques Woog, a young architect and fellow-resistant had been executed by the Nazis. After her return from Auschwitz, Delbo continued to work for Jouvet, but then, in 1946, went to a Swiss convalescent clinic, where she began her memoir. Charlotte worked for the UN, then, in 1960, became assistant to the philosopher Henri Lefebvre. The first two parts of her memoir were complete by 1947, but were not published until 1965 and 1970 respectively, while the last part was finished only shortly before her death from lung cancer in 1985. In recent years Charlotte Delbo’s reputation has risen sharply, and in 2008 she was grouped with Marie Curie, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and others on International Women’s Day. The present writer attended an exhibition exclusively devoted to her life and work, at 21 Place du Pantheon, near the Sorbonne in Paris, which ran from 19-28 September 2013, to mark Delbo’s centenary. A first biography of Charlotte, by Violaine Gelly and Paul Gradvohl, also appeared in 2013.
There are three parts to Auschwitz and After. Their titles are None of Us Will Return (1947-1965), Useless Knowledge (1947/1970) and The Measure of Our Days (1985). Each is a little over a hundred pages long, and the full text is a mixture of prose narrative a reflection, with some poems. Delbo’s eloquence is evident from first to last. She quotes (pp.187/188) from her meeting with a gipsy girl in Ravensbrueck, who asked for a bread ration in return for a copy of the Larousse edition of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope, which Charlotte later read aloud to her fellow inmates. She then, astonishingly, proceeded to memorise it, a fragment each evening, which she would repeat to herself at Roll Call the following day. ‘Soon’, she says, ‘I knew the whole play, which lasted almost throughout roll call. And until departure I kept the play within my throat.’ Her three volumes are a true testimony to seemingly endless cruelty, but also of the will to survive. She said, memorably ‘They expect the worst (le pire) but not the unthinkable (l’inconcevable)’.
Delbo’s description of Roll-Call, in None of Us Will Return (p.101) is brief enough, but says everything in a few sentences:
‘It is endless this morning.
The blockhovas are bustling about, counting and recounting. The female SS in their capes go from one group to the next, step into the office, exit from there with papers they are checking. They are checking this human accounting. Roll-Call will continue until the numbers come out right. Taube (Dove) arrives. He will head the search. He leaves with his dog to go through the blocks. The blockhovas are on the edge, they lunge out with their fists and lash right and left, indiscriminately. Each hopes the missing person is not in her block.
The SS women, cloaked in their capes, examine the numbers, going over the human additions again.
Taube returns. He has the answer. He whistles softly to call the dog to follow him. The dog is dragging a woman by the nape of her neck.
Taube leads his dog to the group from the woman’s block. The count came out right.
Taube blows his whistle. Roll-Call is over. Someone says ‘Let’s hope she was dead.’
7. Interlude; Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies
The huge flood of Holocaust memoir –writing, discussion and analysis of the past forty or fifty years does not preclude the fact that writing about it is extremely difficult. Maurice Blanchot put his finger on this in The Writing of the Disaster (1980) in which he talks about ‘the impossible real’ of forgetfulness as thought. Blanchot here identifies things so terrible that they have ‘fallen outside memory’, and therefore cannot be forgotten. Witnesses in oral testimony have sometimes said that they ‘do not believe their own stories’, because that which they have tried to recapture and describe through conventional memory is so far beyond comprehension. Blanchot observes that this runs the risk of alienating the audience listening to these stories.
Lawrence L. Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (Yale UP 1991) stands alongside Claude Lanzmann’s long film Shoah (88888) as a Holocaust document of the first importance. Langer introduces the concept of ‘anguished memory’. He says that this ‘imprisons the consciousness it should be liberating’, that witnesses are concerned ‘less with the past than with a sense of that past in the present’. By simply writing about their experiences in a consecutive chronicle, survivors are moving, however slightly, away from the thing itself, introducing another element, even if that is ‘nothing more than the value of regaining one’s freedom.’ The statement that ‘all telling modifies what is being told’ is obvious enough on one level, but is a very sensitive matter in this area. Charlotte Delbo, the French Gentile who suffered alongside her Jewish compatriots, and survived, later shrewdly observed that ‘Today, I am no longer sure that what I have written is true (vrai), but I am sure that it happened (veridique).’ Zoltan G., a Hungarian survivor from Auschwitz, said that ‘You were too tired to exist…You were indifferent to everything. You were like a vegetable.’ He tells the story of a Russian POW who traded in his whole ration of bread for Russian tobacco, smoked it all, then went into the latrine and hanged himself.
An unnamed female Auschwitz, quoted by Langer said:
‘I feel my head is filled with garbage. All these images, you know, and sounds, and my nostrils are filled with the stench of burning flesh. And it’s…you can’t excise it, it’s there like another skin beneath this skin, and that skin is called Auschwitz, and you cannot shed it…You know, it’s (as if) the planet was chopped into a normal part – so-called normal: our lives are not really normal – and this other planet, and we were herded onto that planet from this one, and herded back again. We had to re-learn how to live again. Literally how to hold a fork, how to wash with soap, how to brush your teeth…We have these double lives. We can’t cancel out. It just won’t go away.’
Bessie K., who had been a young wife with an infant in 1942, had the baby roughly taken away from her, despite her desperate efforts at concealment. Afterwards, she felt that she herself had died. She had never recovered from that experience, even though after survival and release, she had remarried and had two beautiful daughters with her new husband Jacob. Jacob made this comment:
‘We perceive life as a precious thing. And then Bessie gives birth to a child and the German takes away the child and kills it. What are we, super human, to just brush it aside and say to the world ‘Thank you for liberating us?’ And that’s all. We wash our hands clean (as if) nothing happened? I can’t make peace with that.’
Irene W., a very articulate woman, said that the camp experience had to be kept tightly separated from daily living, even though she knew the task of complete separation was impossible. ’It’s always there,’ she declared, ‘…more a view of the world, a total world view…of extreme pessimism, of really knowing the truth about people, human nature, about death, of really knowing the truth in a way that other people don’t know it. (The result is) a complete lack of faith in human beings.’
Langer reveals that Irene W, had spent six months in the Kanadakommando, sorting out clothing and belongings of those sent immediately to their deaths in Auschwitz, where she arrived aged only fourteen. Her mother and three young siblings were gassed straight away, and she never saw her father or older brother again. Irene and her older sister remained. Again, Langer’s interpretation of ‘anguished memory’ is that it drives off and alienates the intended audience. The experience is essentially ‘unshareable’, but is interpreted by the exasperated listener (Langer suggests) as a failure of communication.
In one last, contrasting example, there is the cattle-car viewpoint, from Edith P. She tells how the train stopped on arrival, and remained standing for an hour. Aware of sunlight outside, Edith reluctantly climbed on a friend’s shoulders to peer through the small barred window. She said:
‘I saw…Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. Here was cleanliness all over. It was a station somewhere I Germany. There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, nor animals. And I thought ‘Paradise must look like this!’ I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun at Auschwitz; I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of (another) horrible day…(Here in the cattle-truck) I had such yearning to live, to run, just to run away and never come back…’
8. Heda Margolius Kovaly
Prague Farewell: A Life in Czechoslovakia 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kovaly (1919-2010) was first published in Czech under the title Na vlastni kuzi in Toronto in 1973. Horizon Press, New York, published an English translation, also in 1973, under the title The Victors and the Vanquished. These versions included a political treatise by Erazim Koliak. This was omitted from the British edition published in 1973 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, under the title I Do Not Want To Remember, where the author appeared a Heda Margolius.
It was realised that anew translation was needed, and this was duly provided by Franci and Helen Epstein, in conjunction with the author, and published in 1988 under the new title Prague Farewell: A Life in Czechoslovakia 1941-1968, with the author’s full name of Heda Margolius Kovaly on the cover. It is one of the most moving memoirs of the whole series, and one of the most powerful indictments of tyranny, in both the Fascist and the Communist form, to have emerged from the Holocaust and the Czech experience after 1945. Heda emerges from this story as another woman (like the much younger Ruth Kluger) of formidable strength of character, who supported her first husband and childhood sweetheart, the politician and civil servant Rudolf Margolius the bitter end. He was one of fourteen people arrested (most of them Jewish) in 1952, accused of currency offences and hanged on 3 December 1952 after a summary trial, collectively known as the Slansky Trials. At this time, Heda, then aged 33, was working in a publishing house in Prague. She never fully recovered from the gross injustice of the Slansky episode, but brought up her son Ivan under conditions of great difficulty. The fury she still felt over the torture and execution of her husband Rudolf is the dominant strand of the work, right up to the time of Alexander Dubcek’s attempt at Czech resistance in 1968, and the takeover of Prague and Czechoslovakia by the Russian army. By that time, Heda had remarried, in 1955; her new husband was Pavel Kovaly, who himself was marginalised because Heda was the widow of the condemned and executed ‘traitor’, Rudolf Margolius. Margolius himself was exonerated or ‘pardoned’ retrospectively in 1968. Heda went to the U.S.A. in that year, working in the Library of International Law at Harvard University, Massachusetts, and becoming a prolific translator from German or English into Czech. She was active in this role from1958 until 1989. Heda and Pavel returned to Prague in 1996, where she died in 2010, aged 91. A memorial plaque to Heda and her first husband is to be found in the New Jewish Cemetery, Prague, just behind Franz Kafka’s grave.
Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir is suffused with anger towards all totalitarian regimes. The Communist rule in Czechoslovakia is the special target of her hatred and resentment. She had seen plenty of suffering as a victim of Fascism in several concentration camps, but though her memoir begins with her time in Auschwitz and after, this is not the primary subject. However, she talks from time to time about belonging to:
‘…a generation (who) 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.’ (p73)
Just before this, she talks of the way of life in the camps, which ‘was not life in any proper sense, (but) was only a thrust in that one direction…The present only existed to be overcome, somehow, anyhow.’ (p72)
Heda also speaks of the strong sense of solidarity which had evolved in the camps:
‘…the idea that one individual’s fate was in every way tied to the fate of the group, whether that meant the group of one’s fellow-prisoners, the whole nation or even of all humanity. For many people, the desire for material goods largely disappeared. As much as we longed for the comforts of life, for good food, clothing, and homes, it was clear to us that these things were secondary, and that our happiness and the meanings of our lives lay elsewhere.’
9. Stella Muller-Madej
Stella Muller-Madej, born in 1930 into a well-to-do Krakow Jewish family, was only nine when war broke out in Europe. In 1941 she and her family went into the Jewish Ghetto (Podgorze). The strange situation had arisen in the General Government of Poland in which the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Kasimierz, which my wife and I visited in 2011, was cleared in 1941 of all its Jewish population, who were herded into the far smaller ghetto area of Podgorze, on the opposite (right) bank of the Wisla River, while Catholics moved into Kasimierz, and took over their houses. Now, in the early 21st century, Kasimierz has become the old Jewish quarter once again, and the Synagogue and Jewish cemetery have been fully restored. Podgorze is now a memorial to the Jews who were kept there in very cramped conditions, before being dispersed to death camps between June 1942 and March 1943.
The majority went straight to Belzec, to the east of Krakow, while others were sent to Auschwitz, only sixty kilometres to the west, and a handful to Plaszow, the slave labour camp just south of the city. The Plaszow camp population grew larger and larger, and created severe health and space difficulties. It reached its peak in the summer of 1944, when there were some 25,000 inmates. A decision was made to transfer all the men to the network camp at Gross Rosen, and the women to Auschwitz; this was done en masse on 15 October (Gross Rosen) and 22 October (Auschwitz).
From Podgorze, Stella was sent to the Plaszow camp in 1942. Still only fourteen years old in 1944, Stella was sent with her mother and other female friends to Auschwitz, where she received the number 76372, inscribed on all copies sold (including mine) of her translated memoir A Girl from Schindler’s List. The original Polish title of this was Oczami dziecka (Through the Eyes of a Child). In Auschwitz, her birthday was given as 5 February 1928, two years older than her true age, and her skill was given as that of a metalworker. Thanks were due to the efforts of an uncle, also a prisoner in Auschwitz, but also a privileged senior architect who had been reporting to the camp commandant, Amon Goeth. However, Goeth was transferred from Auschwitz to Krakow in February 1943, and arrested for currency trafficking in 1944. He was executed in 1946. The young Stella and her family were saved from death in the gas chambers by being placed on Oskar Schindler’s list of important war workers. She was transferred to a metal factory in Brunnlitz (Brnenec) a village in the Perdnbice region of Bohemia, where she worked as a metal turner.
The Russian troops liberated Brunnlitz on 8 May 1945, and Stella, now fifteen, became a free person. But she had great difficulty in resuming a ‘normal life’, following several injuries sustained in the Lager, including breaking her backbone, which required no fewer than five operations. She married in 1954 for the first time, and again in 1968. Soon after that second marriage she emigrated to the United States, but decided later to return to Poland to be with her parents. Stella’s memoir appeared in 1994, very informal and ‘chatty’ in style, utterly unlike the works of Delbo or Kluger, or even Mary Berg, but just as valuable as testimony of her suffering. It was translated into nine languages, marketed as a attribute to Oskar Schindler, one of the few authentic memoirs of a Holocaust sufferer save by him. Stella lived at Podhale in Poland, running a small hotel there with her husband, until her death in January 2013, aged 81. Stella always said that she owed her biological life to her parents, and her ‘second’ adult life to that given to her by Oskar Schindler.
Stella Muller-Madej reported this, following her transport with scores of others to Auschwitz:
‘When I was in Auschwitz I fell seriously ill… By some miracle they got me out of the ‘epidemic block’. (Someone) forged my file and wrote that I was there but mistake. About an hour before the departure for the railway siding, I joined the transport. It was known that if someone did not die naturally in the ‘epidemic infirmary’, the gas chamber awaited them. I ended up there after arriving at Auschwitz we were driven to the so-called sauna. Having stripped us, they put us into this sauna. The lights went out, the metal door was locked, and the 300 women went mad, because they thought they could smell gas. One of them scratched me in a frenzy. From this I got erysipelas, and lice got into the wound. I found myself in the ‘epidemic block’. There was a doctor there - a Jewish woman who had lost a daughter of my age - and she took care of me. After some time I started to get better. From there I was taken, naked, to Doctor (Josef) Mengele. It was December - freezing cold. I had only a sackcloth blanket on my back. The doctor told me: ‘Just remember, keep the blanket by your legs, so that they don’t see your unhealed wound.’ Mengele gave his approval, and they let me go in the transport (to Brunnlitz).’
‘Then,’ she continues, ‘there was Brunnlitz (Brnecec) over the border with Bohemia, Schindler’s camp. He kept us alive heroically. For nearly two months he did not get any food rations for us. He managed to get some bran, some flour and other things. And I don’t believe we were any hungrier there than (we were) in Auschwitz, or in Plaszow towards the end (i.e.1942). People would suffer from hunger dropsy, and their teeth came out like wood chips from pastry, but he (Schindler) saved us’.
10. Hugo Gryn
Rabbi Hugo Gryn, as he became when he settled in Britain, was by far the best-known of these figures in the United Kingdom, through his many BBC broadcasts, and his public position as Rabbi of the West London Synagogue, one of the biggest in Europe. It was here that Hugo Gryn served for 32 years (1964-1996), appearing regularly on the BBC’s Thought for the Day and The Moral Maze. He was made Rabbi in 1957, the year of his marriage to Jacqueline Selby. From 1964 to his death in 1996, Hugo Gryn was also Vice-President and lecturer at Baeck College, USA. In 1989 he decided to go back to his origins, the market town of Berehova in Carpathian Ruthenia (at that time in Czechoslovakia) to make a film about his early years. This journey of return was made with Hugo’s daughter Naomi, who later acted as his editor and writer in the compilation of her father’s published memoirs, Chasing Shadows. This eventually appeared for Viking/Penguin in 2000, four years after Hugo Gryn’s death, though it had been started by him in 1990 and left unfinished at that stage. Naomi, one of his four children, was the crucial figure behind the completion of this memoir.
There is no doubt that, like Stella Muller-Madej and others, Hugo Gryn was very fortunate to survive the war at all. His whole family had been forced into the Berehova Ghetto on 20 April 1944and the transport had left for Auschwitz on 28 May. They were taken in a cattle truck, arriving at Auschwitz on 31 May. His mother Bella and his brother Gabi both died there. Hugo’ s remarkable and brave father Geza kept a watchful eye on his young son, and did his best to help him when the boy reacted against eating repulsive soup issued to them on arrival at the camp. He divided his bread, handed Hugo half, and said ‘That’s all right. You’ll eat your soup tomorrow.’ (p187)
Hugo goes on, typically, stressing for the reader the value of sheer intellectual curiosity in a young person such as he was then, in the absence of any visual material which one would have thought essential for a ‘history of art’ discussion:
‘Before the end of our first week in Auschwitz, the relationship between us became something more than that between father and son. Dad became my best friend as well. During the long hours of heat, we sat on the ground with our backs resting against the wall of the barracks, and we discussed all sorts of subjects. I had no idea that Dad, for instance, knew quite a lot about Michelangelo, Rubens, and Van Gogh, and during that first week we talked mostly about art. There was a Dr Adler with us as well; he, too joined us sometimes, and before long I learned an enormous amount about Pre-Raphaelite painting.’ (p188)
The young and the older Hugo Gryn
Hugo and his father Geza (who was in declining health) were sent to Lieberose camp, and later to Sachsenhausen-Oranienberg, north of Berlin. This was the earliest KL established by Heinrich Himmler in 1936, and in 1961,became the site of an American-sponsored Holocaust Memorial Museum. From Sachsenhausen, Hugo, his father and all the others were liberated by the Americans on 5 May 1945. Hugo had typhoid, and he and Geza were taken to Hoershing, a German Luftwaffe barracks near Linz, where Geza died on 16 May, in his son’s arms. Hugo’s comment runs:
‘For him, liberation was just a few days too late. It was horrible. It seemed so unfair. I could never have survived without the support of my father. He was there all the time, and I really believed that we had made it.’ (p241). He continues:
‘At that moment, effectively, I gave up. I went berserk and lost consciousness. There is a period about which I remember nothing, and I am not sure how long it lasted, either. I was told that as they carried my father out - they were using German orderlies for the work of carrying out the dead - I went for one of them. I wanted to kill him. I was restrained and sedated, and did not see my father’s body again. I do not know where he is buried. They must have put him in a mass grave.’ (p242)
Much of Hugo Gryn’s memoir, Chasing Shadows, is rightly devoted to his earlier, very happy years in the Jewish community in Berehova. He describes the setting, quoting an old Yiddish saying about the area: ‘Ten measures of poverty were given to the world. Nine were taken by Carpathia.’ (p40) He states that ‘Carpathia was an economic backwater where disease, especially tuberculosis, and illiteracy went hand in hand with long stretches of worklessness, and mounting debts to landlords and shopkeepers.’ The family had a sawmill upcountry, and the boy was extremely fond of his grandparents, Abraham and Miriam. Hugo’s mother, Bella, was only one of their large family of eight (surviving) children.
Towards the end of his memoir, Rabbi Gryn reflects on how Auschwitz-Birkenau:
‘…was the denial and the perversion of all the Ten Commandments, which stand for what we have come to call the Judaeo-Christian spiritual tradition and morality - one of the pillars of Western civilisation.’ He lists ten of the perversions brought about by the regime, centring on ‘barbarism of every kind, slavery, lies, murder, betrayal and corruption’, and ending with the sacrifice of truth on all sides, and the arrival of ‘covetousness, envy and unchecked greed as part of the way of life, with no respect for person or property.’ (pp252-3)
11. Ruth Kluger
There could be few greater contrasts in the field of post-Holocaust survivor memoirs than that between the informal very conversational accounts of Stella Muller-Madej in Poland, and the writings of her almost exact contemporary, Ruth Kluger (originally Klueger), born in Vienna in 1931. Ruth was the beneficiary of an affluent and educated upbringing in a city she came to dislike so much because of its ingrained anti-semitism, before 1914 and after 1945, as well as during her own childhood in the 1930s. He father Victor Kluger was a medical doctor; her mother Alma, a Czech, had been married previously, and had a son, Scorschi, by that marriage, Ruth’s half-brother. Her book, Landscapes of Memory was published in 2001, and was subtitled ‘A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered’. Several reviewers criticised this as an inappropriate title, since the book ranges over her whole life, up to and including the death of her mother, Alma Hirschel, at the age of 97, in 2000. Re-reading Landscapes of Memory, I can’t agree completely with these reviewers, for although the section on The Camps covers less than a hundred pages of the whole, each of the other sections relates forwards and backwards to this central pivot. Even the Epilogue, recording first her dreadful accident when she was hit by a young out-of-control cyclist I the street in Gottingen, then the final days of her mother in hospital, is directly connected to what had gone before. Though severely injured by the cyclist, Ruth characteristically fought back with determination, and recovered well. The pivotal experience was in Auschwitz itself, when, accompanied by her other and the ’adopted’ sister Susi, Ruth miraculously escaped ‘selection’ for the gas chambers. She lied about her age, (13) and declared to a guard and his female clerk that she was actually fifteen. The clerk whispered to her ‘Say you are fifteen’. Ruth was small for her age, but the clerk said ‘Just look at her leg-muscles. She’ll be a good worker.’ This instant perception, agreed to by the guard, saved Ruth’s life. Everything that followed in her life was natural consequence of this truly extraordinary moment.
Ruth Kluger, still alive at the end of 2015, aged 84, as I write this, lives in Irvine, California as an emeritus professor of German. In her heyday, she taught at Princeton and Irvine, California, and became a recognised authority on G.E. Lessing and Heinrich von Kleist, among others. Landscapes of Memory was first published by the Feminist Press at the City University, New York in 2001, and then in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2003. Later it was re-issued in 2009 under the title Still Alive, though still with the same subtitle to indicate its content. The book is not a straight translation of the one originally published in German in 1992, but has been completely re-written from start to finish. Unfortunately, in the original German edition Ruth was frank about her long, difficult relationship with her mother, both in the camps and subsequently. Inevitably, Alma found passages which were critical of her personally, and was badly hurt. Ruth admits this ruefully, so decided to write a parallel version in English, but not to publish this until after Alma’s death.
From 1993 onwards, Ruth Kluger was awarded many literary prizes for her work, including the Lower Saxony Prize (1993), the Heinrich Heine Medal (1997), the Shoah Prize (1998), the Thomas Mann Prize (1999), the Goethe Medal (2005), the Saxony Lessing Prize (2007) and the Austrian Danubius Prize (2011). Few Austrian-born Jewish writers have been more garlanded. Landscapes of Memory is quite different from Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, but is similarly the product of a very sophisticated, obviously very literate mind, full of frankness and feeling, and deserves to stand alongside Levi’s masterpiece. Throughout, she writes without sentiment (see also Heda Margolius Kovaly) or self-pity, but with vigour, anger and perceptiveness.
Ruth was a guest lecture at Gottingen University, yet any negative feeling she might have had about the place are not very strong, even though Braunschweig (Brunswick, where Hitler took German citizenship in 1932) is nearby. But as far as Vienna is concerned, she had very strong negative feelings. In an interview with Der Spiegel in November 2006, Ruth said:
‘Vienna reeks of anti-Semitism. For me, every cobblestone in Vienna is anti-Semitic. If I had not fled with my mother and her friend (she means her ‘adopted’ sister Susi) in time, by the end of the war I could have ended up in Bergen-Belsen. But I have never been there, and I don’t go to concentration camp memorial sites. Vienna (she went on) will never be rid of anti-Semitism. I have the feeling the city doesn’t even want to be. When I got the invitation to go there (to a guest professorship, which she hated) I couldn’t help thinking: ‘This is the university where your father studied‘ And the first few weeks I was there, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my father (Viktor, a gynaecologist) was standing behind me. I kept asking myself what he would have said if he had been there. And after a few weeks I knew what he would have said; ‘You are pretty stupid to have come here.’
The loss of Ruth’s father from her ninth year, and the disappearance of her half-brother Schorschi affected the young girl profoundly, and permanently. Paradoxically, it turned her quite early into a feminist, though not of a conventional kind. Viktor Kluger went west, eventually to the Drancy Jewish camp in the north east of Paris, where the Allies, on liberating the camp ion 17 August 1944, found only 1542 prisoners still alive out of the 67400 who had been interned there since 1940. Viktor later on was transferred to the Baltic States. Ruth never saw him again. She was only eight when he disappeared. Schorschi, Ruth’s half-brother, also vanished, and it was only years later, while Ruth was in New York that he was confirmed as having been on a transport of prisoners to Riga, Latvia, all of whom were shot on arrival. One senses the absence of these two men throughout the compelling narrative, in all the anecdotes about her mother’s controlling behaviour, not just in the camps, but afterwards, through the whole of their time in America, right into Alma’ s extreme old age. And yet it was Alma’s ultimate protectiveness as Ruth’s mother and as the adoptive mother of a complete stranger met in Theresienstadt, Susi, which saved both girls, and somehow ensured the survival of three women.
After the very difficult years in Vienna until 1942, when she was forced to sit indoors in the dark for most of the time, reading and committing poetry to memory, Alma and Ruth were sent to Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czechoslovakia). Ruth’s friend Liesel went there too, with her father, but neither Liesel nor her father survived. There was no reading in Theresienstadt, but plenty of people, and one feels that Ruth’s social education effectively began there. There were clandestine meetings in secret rooms and lofts, and she recalls with particular warmth those run by Rabbi Baeck. Hunger and thirst (the hated roll-calls again, as with Charlotte Delbo in Auschwitz) were her predominant memories. There followed the terrible, humiliating ‘cattle-truck’ transport to Auschwitz, for Alma, herself and Susi, and the appalling time in Birkenau. This was followed for all three by transmission to one of the 96 sub-camps of the vast Gross Rosen camp network, known as Christianstadt (Krystkowice), a women’s labour camp in occupied Poland. Gross Rosen also had many sites in eastern Germany. Cold and hunger persisted there, but strangely conditions improved slightly. The women guards were generally firm but fair, not gratuitously cruel. It is hard to imagine this young girl Ruth Kluger, only twelve years old, lifting steel rails, helping to move tree-trunks, and, worst of all, working in the bitter cold in a stone quarry.
In January and February 1945, the camp was evacuated, and the prisoners all had to walk, carrying only blankets (an awkward burden in itself) and the standard metal dish for each person. ‘We wore’, she says ‘the rags that were our clothes, with the yellow patch that could be covered.’ Exhaustion and boredom were her chief memories of this, until the moment came when she, Susi and Alma decided to make a break for it, and escape. They achieved this in a sudden burst of energy, and to their own complete surprise, succeeded. In their flight from the forced march (away from Christianstadt) Ruth observes that they were caught up ‘in the break-up of Old Germany’. They joined the great army of German refugees who were being driven, westward, out of their home territory, by the great Soviet advance. These people were too busy ‘choking on their own misery, and had not the stomach to ask suspiciously where we came from.’ What is so staggering about this is the sheer determination, allied to physical strength, which allowed them to cover the great distance they did, and somehow survive. Ruth gives no details about how they managed to do this.
When they reached Straubing in Bavaria, the period of the heaviest Allied bombing on German cities was under way. Once again, despite many deaths from aerial bombardment among those around them, they managed to survive. Alma, Susi and Ruth were among the first Displaced Persons (DPs) in Straubing, ending up in a DP camp at Deggendorf. Ruth recalls swimming in the then unpolluted River Danube. She acquired a diploma from Straubing High School, and the three of them went to Regensburg, a relatively undamaged historic city, where Alma worked for UNRAA (The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). A landmark of this period was the presence of a stimulating teacher of early modern history who later became celebrated as the prolific and distinguished novelist Martin Walser (1927- ).
All three women soon obtained visas to go to the USA, where Ruth’s American relatives were cool and condescending, critical of her attitudes. Slowly and haltingly she began to learn English. An aunt with little imagination or empathy loudly urged Ruth to ‘erase your memories of Europe!’ While Susi went to St. Louis, Ruth and Alma stayed in New York. Happily, Hunter College, then an all-female institution, with a tiny handful of mem students, took Ruth, and she spent gloriously contented hours in the New York Public Library. At Hunter College, she says that the women teachers were the best. ‘I had access to the great English authors,’ she says, ‘from Chaucer to Henry James, with elucidations by women trained in the New Criticism. It was here’, she declares proudly, ‘that I learned to read Shakespeare and Faulkner.’
Ruth Kluger comments wryly on certain films she saw in America in the immediate post-war years. One was Oliver Twist (1948) in which Alec Guinness plays Fagin, the victimiser of little Christian children, ‘bizarrely echoing Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s.’ In Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), a Jewish veteran returns from the war and cannot find a house or an apartment because of anti-Jewish restrictions. Yet, as Ruth remarks incredulously, the Jewish catastrophe is never mentioned, even though the protagonist has fought the Nazis. Zionism and the Jewish state were mentioned, but not the massacre of the Jews as such.
Ruth Kluger realises very well the importance of nomenclature and ‘awareness’. She observes (p223) that in 1947-8, ‘the Holocaust had no name as yet, and hence it was not even an idea, only an event; among the other disasters of the Second World War, a lot of Jews had died. A concept without a name is like a stray dog or a feral cat. To domesticate it, you have to call it something. The word holocaust for the Jewish catastrophe only came into general use in the 1970s.’
The students at Hunter College had to put up with a College President who was ‘known to be anti-Semitic.’ and was hostile to the Nuremberg Trials. Susi, an able girl (not, of course, a blood relative of Ruth, but a de facto sister) was turned down for nursing initially because she had been in the camps. Nevertheless, she was eventually admitted elsewhere, trained as a psychiatric nurse, and later as a clinical psychologist. Ruth, through her mother, crossed swords with Dr Lazi Fessler, a Jewish doctor, and her father’s old friend. He accused Ruth of arrogance and lack of respect - she cannot have been an easy young woman - and also of neglect of her appearance. Ruth never got on with him, or came near to liking him. Fortunately, his opinion that she would never make friends was disproved, and she found a turning point at the University of Vermont Summer School in Burlington, in 1949, still only in her 18th year. Not wanting to remain Austrian under any circumstances, Ruth applied for American citizenship. The development of her career as a scholar and teacher of German literature from that point onwards falls outside the scope of this account, and outside the scope of her memoir. Alma died in 2000, aged 97. She had been married four times. Her last husband died aged 91, in 1989, leaving her a widow for her last eleven years. The great joy of Alma’s last years was her great-granddaughter Isabela, Ruth’s own granddaughter. Ruth had experienced so many difficulties over a lifetime with her mother, but these seemed to come more and more into perspective once Ruth herself had passed the age of sixty. Ruth dedicated Landscapes of Memory to Alma Hirschel, the mother who despite (or because of her personality) had brought Ruth through to the other side of death, and into a long, civilised and productive life.
12. Primo Levi
With Primo Levi, trained chemist, successful industrial manager, and lover of the works of Dante, Rilke and Goethe, we arrive at the witness of incarceration and brutality who became, not only a recorder of the unspeakable, but a great writer who over the decades emerged as a world-famous and much-admired figure. In his Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man (Se Quest’e un Uomo) and in the story of his four-month journey back from the lager to his home in Turin, described in The Truce (La Tregua) Levi set down a record which has not been surpassed. If This Is A Man was written in the year after Levi’s return from Auschwitz, the whole experience crystal-clear in his mind. La Tregua was written in Turin between December 1961 and November 1962. The style of La Tregua, as the Italian-American Levi scholar Franco Baldasso has observed, is much more relaxed than that of If This Is A Man; it could hardly be otherwise. The paradox is that If This Is A Man, written so quickly after the war’s end, was turned down by several publishers initially, including the leading house of Einaudi, on the grounds that the time was not right for such a book. In due course it was taken on by Franco Antonicelli, the 45-year-old head of an obscure Turin publishing house, who had fought successfully with the Italian Resistance. The book appeared on October 11 1947. Reviews were few and mostly indifferent. 1900 out of 2500 copies were sold, but Levi’s reputation did not spread beyond Turin at this stage. The remaindered 600 copies were stored in a Florence warehouse, only to be destroyed in the great floods of 1966. But two Italian reviewers in 1947 praised it highly, Arrigo Cajumi, a well-known Piedmontese critic who was scornful of current convention, and Italo Calvino, who was four years Levi’s junior, and later became a celebrated writer himself. Calvino’s own Italian Resistance novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders came out just before If This Is A Man, but did far better in sales, since it reached out to a specifically Italian patriotic audience. Levi was very disappointed by his book’s poor reception, and decided to abandon his plan to write full-time. He returned to his professional employment as a chemist involved in the manufacture of paints and varnishes.
Time passed, attitudes began to change, and Einaudi finally took on If This Is A Man in 1958. It appeared in Stuart Woolf’s translation in the U.S.A. in 1959, and in Britain a year later. La Tregua was published by Einaudi in 1963, and Woolf’s translation of this sequel came out in 1965. These two books are now seen as a natural pair, intended to be read together, one after the other. Levi never gave up his important job at SIVA (Societa Industriale Vernici e Affini) in Turin, and was a part-time writer up to the moment of his formal retirement from his ‘day job’. Collections of stories by Levi appeared steadily over the years, and Einaudi published his Opere (Collected Works) in three volumes, edited by Ernesto Ferrero, in 1987. The first of several biographies, by Fiora Vincenti, appeared in 1973, and was followed by biographical portraits of Levi by Gabriella Poli /Giorgio Calcagno (1992), Massimo Dini and Stefano Jesurum (also 1992) Miryam Anissimov (1996/1998) , Ian Thomson (2002) and Carole Angier (also 2002), together with a study in French, published in 2001, by Daniela Amsallem, under the title ‘Au Miroir de son Oeuvre: Primo Levi, le temoin, l’ecrivain, le chimiste.’ Thomson and Angier found themselves writing lives of Levi in parallel, and they appeared in print more or less simultaneously. Other translators of Levi’s works into English followed in the wake of Stuart Woolf, notably Raymond Rosenthal, Ruth Feldman, William Weaver and Gail Soffer. In 1998, Robert Weil, executive editor of W.W. Norton & Co., New York, devised and planned an English edition of Primo Levi’s works, in three volumes, to be edited by Ann Goldstein. This duly appeared in 2015, seventeen years later. Many new translations were commissioned, including those by Simon Rich and Jenny McPhee.
When Levi, aged 26, returned to his flat in Turin in the summer of 1945, he re-entered a world of normality and sanity. His wife Lucia and his mother Rina were much as he had left them in 1944, but he himself had changed forever. Though very fit and intellectually alert, Levi had been traumatised by his experiences in the Lager. At the same time, he was well aware of his good fortune in falling ill with scarlet fever at the very point when the Germans abandoned the camp in January 1945, taking with them everyone except the 800 in Sick Bay, who were effectively forgotten and left to die. Almost all of those who went on the forced march to another camp died on the way. These included some of Levi’s close friends. As Ruth Kluger observed in her Landscapes of Memory, these ‘death marches’ were often not meant as such. ‘The famous German organisational impetus’, she says, ‘failed once again. It wasn’t part of an overarching plan to let so many prisoners starve and freeze to death so near the end. It was the ‘accidental’ result of an evil intent.’ Landscapes of Memory, Bloomsbury, 2000 p154.
Levi himself recovered in due course - he was, after all, a man in the prime of physical life, in his mid-twenties - but most of those in the Sick Bay at Auschwitz died of their illnesses. Many bodies were buried, but scores were just left above ground, which is how the young outriders of the Russian army found the Lager on their arrival (quietly, on horseback, riding unannounced over soft ground) on 27 January. Levi returned to Turin after his long, unplanned, unexpected railway trip up into Russia, to a holiday camp at Starye Dorogi in Belarus, eventually coming back down by rail through Romania, Hungary and Austria, approaching Turin though Munich, Innsbruck, Verona and Milan. Once home, he experienced an uncontrollable wish to talk at length about his experiences in the Lager, both at home and on public transport. Amazingly, instead of turning away or blocking their ears in annoyance and disbelief, people were only too willing to listen to him. Furthermore, at home, for many months, he continued compulsively, if irrationally, to hide pieces of bread under his pillow at night. This is exactly what he had done for months in Auschwitz, like everyone else, to prevent them from being stolen by other prisoners.
In the Lager, it had been, as he put ‘…every man (and woman) for themselves…’, a crude law of nature which the unusually intelligent Levi was in general able to rise above. He was saved in the long run by his rare powers of observation and recollection, his lifelong knowledge of German (which almost all his fellow Italians lacked, and were bewildered by) and his practical and extensive knowledge of chemistry. The Germans quickly spotted this last attribute, and were all too keen to exploit it to their advantage, while still treating him in general, as they did all the inmates, as a member of a sub-species. Levi realised that the conditions in the Lager meant that his physical survival depended on being able to withstand all humiliations, even as he saw so many around him dying, either from starvation or illness, or simply by being gassed.
One section of If This Is A Man is headed ‘The Drowned and the Saved’ (I sommersi e i salvati), referring to those who succumbed, often quite quickly, and those who by ultimate good fortune and a miracle of willpower, managed to emerge (if only just) alive. This chapter follows one which, with a deliberate nod to Friedrich Nietzsche, is called ‘This Side of Good and Evil’. Levi observes quietly that he does not believe that ‘…man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilised institution is taken away…’, but rather that ‘…in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities, many social habits are reduced to silence.’
Speaking of the drowned and the saved, one thinks of other pairs of opposites - good and bad, wise and foolish, cowardly and courageous, unlucky and fortunate, which he calls less distinct, less essential, allowing for ‘more numerous and complex intermediary gradations’. The ‘drowned’ and the ‘saved’ are more evident in the Lager than in so-called ‘normal’ life because in the Lager:
‘…the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone. If some ‘Null Achtzehn’ vacillates, he will find no-one to extend a helping hand: on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no-one’s interest that there be one more ‘mussulman’ (Levi means the weak and inept, or those doomed to selection for the gas chambers) dragging himself to work every day…if someone, by a miracle of savage patience and cunning finds a new method of avoiding the hardest work, anew art which yield him an ounce of bread, he will try to keep his method secret, and he will be esteemed and respected for this, and will derive from it an exclusive, personal benefit; he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival.’ (Woolf translation, p94)
The tone of If this Is A Man, a relatively short book at 178 pages, was quiet, literate, civilised, objective, expository, and in a quite unexpected way, non-judgmental. It was, of course, gripping from start to finish, and the style was clearly that of an already distinguished writer, full of implied or hidden literary references, notably to Dante Alighieri. The narrative actually ends on 27 January 1945, on a note of hope and expectation, when Primo, Charles and Arthur, three survivors among the wreckage and appalling filth, realise that they have come through, unlike their friend the Hungarian Somogyi, who finally dies after long suffering. Towards the end of his life - by his own hand, in April 1987 - Levi wrote a very different work, harsher in tone altogether, re-using that chapter title from 1947, The Drowned and The Saved. At about the same length (170 pages in Raymond Rosenthal’s English translation) the anger and indignation so carefully manged and even suppressed in If ThIs Is A Man was allowed full play. It starts with a Preface on behalf of the sommersi (the drowned) and continues with chapters entitled The Memory of the Offence; The Grey Zone; Shame; Communicating: Useless Violence; The intellectual in Auschwitz; and Stereotypes. In a final section, Levi sets out the history of the German publication of If This Is A Man, in 1959,under the title Ist das ein Mensch? and his involvement with the translator Heinz Reidt. Reidt was a Goldoni specialist, fluent in Italian, and a man of deep scholarship. He also had hated the Nazis. Understandably, Levi was particularly concerned about the possible impact his memoir of Auschwitz might have in Germany, and on the younger generation of Germans. A friendship developed, as their attitudes to the recent past were so similar, but it went further. Levi was extremely anxious that the German translation should be meticulously accurate, and so he took special care over every word. As he grew older, his attitude to Germany hardened, and could be summed up in the accusation ‘Look what you did. Look what you allowed to happen.’
In the years 1961 to 1964, Levi received some forty letters from Germans who had read If This Is A Man, almost all from younger people whose parents were involved in the Hitler era. Later letters, he says, were more ‘pallid’, as the events of 1938-45 receded, and expressed ‘vague solidarity, ignorance and detachment.’ One letter sent in 1961, soon after the book’ s publication in Germany, came from Dr T.H. of Hamburg (and his wife) and aroused Levi’s anger. This was so even though Dr T.H. had said at the outset that he and his wife had been ‘deeply moved’ by If This Is A Man. Dr T.H. excused support for Hitler and his cronies after 1933 on the grounds that the Communists were the only alternative, and that ‘all (Hitler’s) beautiful words were falsehood and betrayal, which we did not understand at the beginning.’ Dr T.H. argued that ‘it was impossible to rebel against a totalitarian state’, and that spontaneous anti-Semitism was not typical of the average German’s attitude to the Jews. But Levi replied, in a very critical letter, pointing out that an alternative had been available in the last free elections in Germany in 1932, and that everything Hitler felt about the Jews in Europe had been expressed clearly and definitively in Mein Kampf (1925/26), ideas from which he never deviated.
Yet the great majority of his correspondents were people who, as Levi says, had read the book attentively, sometimes more than once, and declared themselves enriched by it. Of course, many more would have read it who never wrote to Levi to express a reaction, as Levi was very well aware. A librarian from Westphalia worked for an organisation of young people, Expiatory Action, rebuilding cities most damaged by the German war, including Coventry. She said that the true crime, as Levi put it ‘…the collective general crime of almost all Germans of that time was that of lacking the courage to speak.’ A man from Frankfurt wondered whether the guilty people could be called ‘Germans’, and wanted Levi to remember the numerous Germans ‘…who suffered and died in their struggle against iniquity.’ Levi replied wondering how many Germans over a certain age were truly conscious of what happened in Europe ‘in the name of Germany.’ He felt that the compassionate voices, horrified at what had been done, were equalled by those stridently ‘proud of the power an wealth of today’s Germany.’
A woman from Stuttgart, a social worker, confirmed this when she said that ‘…unfortunately there are still among us many who refuse to believe that the Germans really committed such inhuman horrors against the Jewish people.’ A male physician from Wurttemberg wrote that ‘Much though I try to remove myself from the evil of the past, I still remain a member of this people whom I love, and who in the course of centuries has given birth in equal measure to works of noble peace and to others filled with demonic peril.’ An historian and sociologist from Bremen spoke of his hatred for ‘the criminals who made you and your companions suffer, and I hate their accomplices, many of whom are still alive.’ A student from Bavaria, writing in 1962,deplored the attitude of many of he contemporaries, saying that she had reacted violently to a priest who maligned the Jews, and to her seriously anti-Semitic Russian teacher, saying that she felt ‘…an indescribable shame at belonging to the most barbaric of people.’
Frau Hety S. of Wiesbaden conducted a long correspondence with Levi, from 1966 to 1982. She said, very firmly at the outset, that ‘even we are unable to understand the Germans… For many of us, words like ‘Germany’, ‘Fatherland’ have forever lost the meaning they once had: the concept of ‘the Fatherland’ has been obliterated for us… What is absolutely not possible is to forget.’ Hety’s father had been a Social Democrat, lost his job after 1933 (just like Joachim Fest’ s father, mentioned in my Introduction) and was sent to Dachau after the Hitler assassination plot of July 1944. Though he survived the war, he did not live long after 1945. It is clear from the way Levi describes their correspondence that Frau Hety S. was an exceptional woman, with an acute conscience, high intelligence, and a passionate, lifelong interest in the world and in other people. She was, as Levi put it ‘…avid, even famished for human encounters’. It was Hety S. who put Levi in touch with Jean Amery, on the sole condition that they agreed to send her carbon copies of the letters they would exchange; they duly did so.
Primo Levi provided an unexpected epigraph at the head of The Drowned and The Saved. It comes from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner lines 582-585, and runs:
‘Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns,
And till my ghastly tale is told
This heart within me burns.’
He quotes this again at the beginning of The Survivor, one of the late poems (dated 4 February 1984) included in the second poetry collection Ad Ora Incerta (At the Uncertain Hour) and dedicated to his old friend Bruno Vasari. This, like almost all his poems, dwells at one remove on ‘the memory of the offence.’ It runs in its entirety:
‘Once more he sees his companions’ faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Grey with cement dust
Nebulous in the mist,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams their jaws move,
Chewing a non-existent turnip,
‘Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I Iive and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.’
(tr. Ruth Feldman: Primo Levi: Collected Poems, Faber 1988, p. 64)
Levi threw himself head first down the narrow stairwell at his home, 75 Corso Re Umberto, Turin, on 11 April 1987. He died instantly. He was 68, a reserved man to the end. His death, in such a way at that moment, has been puzzled over for many years. For those interested, there are detailed accounts of the period running up to, and following his death in the fine English biographies by Ian Thomson and Carole Angier. Amid much speculation, the consensus is that he was in the grip of a very severe depression, which was almost certainly not primarily the result of his eleven months in Auschwitz, but was brought about by the intense domestic pressures resulting from his mother Rina’s illness, his lifelong devotion to her, and need to attend to her, together with the illness of his mother-in-law. In addition, he himself was ill with prostate trouble, and had been in severe pain. In an interview with a young journalist, Roberto di Caro, on 28 December 1986, his last ever, Levi had said that ’people always asked him the same questions - about the relationship between chemistry and writing, about why he did not hate the Germans, about why he had not escaped (or tried to) from Auschwitz, and about the continued validity of all he had written to date. Levi went on to say this:
‘I am not a guru or a prophet. Any reader of palms and tealeaves is a better prophet than I am. Prophets are a plague, and always have been.’
I quote now from Carole Angier’s biography of Levi, p688:
‘He was not a prophet, and he was not strong. Not at all. His readers thought that he was, because he had survived the Lager: but that was not strength, it was only endurance. It was not their fault, however, that they had this false idea of him; it was his own. He had put a false image of himself into his books. He had not pretended to be brave, or clairvoyant, but he had always presented himself as clairvoyant and serene. And he was not. He went through long periods when he was not serene at all - perhaps because of the Lager, he added. He did not cope well with difficulties. But about that he had never written…’
From Inge Clendinnen: Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge UP 1999) p182
‘Historians are the foot soldiers in the slow business of understanding our species better, and thereby extending the role of reason and humanity in human affairs. Humankind saw the face of the Gorgon in the concentration camps, petrifying the human by its denial of the human both in itself and in its prey. The shadow of the Holocaust has lengthened with the years. In that shadow, none of us is at home in the world, because now we know the fragility of our content. If we are to see the Gorgon sufficiently steadily to destroy it, we cannot afford to be blinded by reverence or abashed into silence or deflected into a search for reassuring myths. We must do more than register guilt, or grief, or anger, or disgust, because neither reverence for those who suffer, nor revulsion from those who inflict the suffering will help us to overcome its power to paralyse, and to see it clearly.’
Bibliography: Part One – Texts
Wiesel, Elie (1928-): Night (1981); tr. Stella Rodway, Foreword by Francois Mauriac, Penguin 1981. Originally: la Nuit Editions de Minuit 1958
Amery, Jean (Hans Chaim Maier) (1912-1978): At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations of a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities; tr. Sidney and Stella P.Rosenfeld. First edition of original German text, Munich 1966 as Jenseits von Schuld und Suehne. Reissue 1977, Granta Books 1999
Berg, Mary (1924-?): Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto: The Diary of Mary Berg; tr. from the Polish by Norbert Guterman and Sylvia Glass, edited by S.L.Shneiderman. Original edition, New York, 1945; annotated, revised edition by Susan Pentlin, One World Publications 2007
Borowski, Tadeusz (1922-1951): This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (stories); originally published by Wybor Opowiadan, Poland 1959 (copyright Maria Borowski). Selected and translated by Barbara Vedder, introduction by Jan Kott Viking Penguin Inc. 1967, Penguin 1976
Delbo, Charlotte (1913-1985): Auschwitz and After; tr. by Rosette C. Lamont. Introduction by Lawrence L. Langer Yale UP 1995 originally completed in three sections in French: Aucun de nous ne reviendra (1946, pub. 1965); Une connaissance inutile (1946/7, pub. 19700; and La memoire et les jours (1985).
Langer, Lawrence L.: Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory; Yale UP 1991
Kovaly, Heda Margolius (1919-2010): Prague Farewell: Alife in Czechoslovakia 1941-1968; Gollancz, London 1988, tr. from the Czech by Francis Epstein and Helen Epstein, with the author. Originally published in Czech in Toronto, 1973. Original English translation, under the title I Do Not Want To Remember, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. The Epstein translation is a new one, and first appeared in 1986 from the Plunkett Lake Press, entitled Under A Cruel Star
Muller-Madej, Stella (1930-2013): A Girl from Schindler’s List; tr. from the Polish by William R. Brand DjaF, Krakow, 2006. Original Polish Title; Oczami dziecka (Through the Eyes of a Child)
Gryn, Hugo (1930-1996) with Gryn, Naomi: Chasing Shadows; Viking Penguin 2001
Kluger, Ruth (1931-): Landscapes of Memory; A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered; Bloomsbury 2003. First published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2001.
Levi, Primo (1919-1987): If This Is A Man (Se quest’ e un Uomo); first published by Antonicelli in 1946, and by Einaudi in 1958. English Translation by Stuart Woolf 1960 (Orion Press) Introduction by Paul Baley
The Truce (La Tregua); first published by Einaudi 1963. English translation By Stuart Woolf, introduction by Paul Bailey, Bodley Head 1965
Combined edition first published in the UK by Penguin Books 1979, Introduction by Paul Bailey Vintage /Random House 1996
The Drowned and The Saved (I Sommersi e I Salvati); first published in Italian by Einaudi 1986 English translation by Raymond Lewenthal 1988, introduction by Paul Bailey (Michael Joseph 1988 / Abacus 1989, reprinted many times)
Bibliography: Part Two – Some General Works
Beevor, Anthony: The Second World War (Chapter 34; The Shoah By Gas); Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2012
Beller, Stephen: Vienna and the Jews 1867-1938: a cultural history; Cambridge UP 1989
Bielenberg, Christal: The Past Is Myself; Chatto & Windus 1968 / Corgi 1984
Blanchot, Maurice: The Writing of the Disaster (1980); tr. Amy Smock New edition, University of Nebraska Press 1995
Browning, Christopher: In the Cauldron (review of three new specialist studies on the Holocaust by Doron Rabinovici, G.H.Bennett and Ellen Cassedy) New York Review of Books, August 26, 2012, pp70-75
Cesarani, David: Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1939-1949; Pan Macmillan 2016
Davidowicz, Lucy: The War Against the Jews 1933-1945; Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1975/ Penguin 1990
Evans, Richard J.: The Third Reich in History and Memory; Cambridge UP 2014
Fest, Joachim, tr. Martin Chalmers: Not I; A German Childhood; Atlantic Books 2012 (original German publication 2006)
Friedlaender, Saul: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1933-1945; Abridged edition by Orla Kenan Harper Perennial 2009
Gay, Peter: My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin; Yale UP 1998
Gay, Ruth: The Jews in Germany: A Historical Portrait; Yale UP 1992
Gilbert, Martin: The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy; Collins 1986
Gilbert, Martin: Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past; Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997
Gordon, Robert S.C. (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi; Cambridge UP 2007
Hastings, Max: All Hell let Loose: The World at War 1939-45 (Chapter 20: Victims); Harper Press 2011
Hilberg, Raoul: Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945; Harper Collins 1992
Mazower, Mark: Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century; Allen Lane 1998 / Penguin 1999
Rees, Laurence: Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution; BBC Books 2005
Richmond, Theo Konin: A Quest; Jonathan Cape 1996
Schleunes, Karl: The Twisted Road to Auschwitz; University of Illinois Press 1970
Snyder, Timothy: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin; Bodley Head 2010/ Vintage 2011
Stone, Dan (ed.): The Historiography of the Holocaust; Palgrave Macmillan 2004
Thomson, Ian: Primo Levi: A Life Henry Holt & Co. New York 2002
Wachsmann, Nikolaus KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps Little, Brown 2015
Wasserstein, Bernard: On The Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War Profile Books 2012
New studies of the Holocaust era are appearing all the time in the early 21st century. Nikolaus Wachsmann’s major book on the camps (see above) was published in 2015. In the issue of the Times Literary Supplement for December 4, 2015, David Motadel reviewed no fewer than four new titles, three in English and one in German, which were as follows: Christopher Dillon: Dachau and the SS: a schooling in violence (Oxford UP 2015); Timothy W. Ryback: Hitler’s First Victims; and one man’s race for justice (Bodley Head 2015); Kim Wuenschmann: Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the prewar concentration camps (Harvard U.P.2015); Guenter Morsch and Agnes Ohm: Terror in der Provinz Brandenburg: Fruehe Konzentrationslager 1933/34 (Metropol 2015)
Copyright Dr Robert Blackburn December 2015
The following photographs were taken by RB at
Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 2010