Hazel McHaffie

Jews

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Ludwig Eisenberg was born on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942 and tattooed with the number 32407. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is his story, a salutary reminder that ‘every one of the unimaginably large number of Holocaust victims was an individual with a unique story …’ ; another window on one of the most barbaric events in human history.

It took the author Heather Morris three years to untangle, as she built up a special friendship with this extraordinary man, now Lale Sokolov. Trust took time to establish. For him, memory and history were closely intertwined, and overlaid with a burden of guilt lest he be seen as a collaborator in these crimes. And Morris has captured his truth: he did what he did in order simply to survive, and in so doing, found little ways to bring compassion and humanity into the lives of others.

When he’s first assigned the task of tattooing numbers on each new batch of inmates, he recoils from the prospect of defiling hundreds of innocent people, but he quickly realises that he could put soul into the task, hurt them less than someone with no sensitivity for their pain and degradation.

And being the Tätowierer brings privileges – a room to himself, freedom to circulate, extra food rations – benefits he’s determined to share with his previous bunk mates and his assistant. He becomes a conduit for goods in both directions – jewels, medicines, food, luxuries – smuggling necessities to those who fall ill, bribing guards in order to gain advantages for others. And as he stealthily does what he can, he witnesses many other examples of courage and humanity and selflessness, even in the face of brutality of incomprehensible proportions.

One of the most sinister and chilling sections relates to Lale’s encounters with Herr Doktor Josef Mengele whose ‘soul is colder than his scalpel’. Watching the tattooist at work, the doctor stands before the parades of young women prisoners queueing to be assigned a number, deciding their fate with a flick of his hand – right, left, right, right, left, left, right – no obvious logic since they’re all in the prime of their lives, fit and healthy. And by and by his eye falls on Lale’s young assistant, Leon. He is whisked away, returned some time later without his testicles, cut off in the name of Mengele’s infamous medical experiments.

As Lale sinks deeper and deeper into scenes of unparalleled inhumanity, he feels he is drowning in hell. Even the walls seem to be weeping for those who leave a room in the morning and do not return at night. He befriends a whole consignment of Romani people who share his block of rooms, only to see every last one of them rounded up and reduced to ash.

At one point he’s called to the very centre of the horror, to one of the ovens in the Crematorium, to identify the correct owner of a given number when two corpses appear to bear the same one. He steps into a cavernous room …
‘Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old; children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine, faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space.’
The SS officer with him teases him that he’s probably the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked out again, but for Lale, this is one step farther into the abyss.

As a privileged person himself, Lale is also personally vulnerable – he must be wary of  people’s motives for befriending him, for confiding in him, alert to the threat of backstabbing and false accusations, of being seen to be collaborating with the enemy. And again and again he asks himself, what has he been saved for?

‘Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism … I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator.’

Nor is he free from the constant fear of his own death or degradation. His personal safety is at the whim of the armed guard assigned to monitor him, his mood, his thirst for disposable fodder. When someone betrays Lale for the stash of gems (bargaining chips) under his mattress, he undergoes severe torture and starvation, now reliant on others to rally to his support and cherish him. And falling in love with prisoner 34902, Gita, renders him vulnerable in many new and delicate ways.

Originally a screenplay, this debut novel often reads like a script for actors, or the descriptive overlays on TV programmes designed for those with hearing- or visual-impairment. I wanted to edit it severely!! But what it lacks in literary merit it makes up for in the poignancy of a life lived in the face of inhumanity beyond reason. A sobering lesson for us all.

When his Romani friends were summarily cremated, Lale sank into a deep depression, but Gita told him ‘you will honour them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here‘. He has indeed honoured them. The cost to him can only be dimly imagined. No one could possibly survive such an experience without being terribly traumatised. In his case ‘everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss.’

Let us never forget.

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Man’s inhumanity

Jewish persecutionI’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust and personally visited places where these terrible events happened and are remembered or commemorated. And wept. I read Night just before Christmas and was horrified and moved and guilt-ridden and humbled all over again.

It’s a first hand account of Eliezer Wiesel‘s experiences (translated from the original French into English by his wife Marion), through the ghettos, deportation, the concentration camps – Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald – and eventual liberation. Elie was a teenager during the Hitler years.

Personal, poignant, honest, painful, it’s a slim volume – a mere 115 pages – but an immensely powerful story. As he says, eyes that have seen babies and children thrown into the flames, witnessed unimaginable humiliation and cruelty, seen young boys hung inexpertly, watched hundreds of men die of starvation or suffocation or cold or a bullet, can never forget. Their brains will for ever be deprived of sleep and rest.

Then and afterwards he just could not reconcile the barbarity he witnessed with life in the 1940s. ‘I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes.’ Even when the persecution began, when thousands were corralled and removed, the Jews themselves would not, could not, believe the ugly rumours of man’s inhumanity to man. It was inconceivable.

But gradually reality drove home, and the horrors shattered his strong faith. Standing in his ill-fitting prison garb, stinking of disinfectant, a bald, starving 14-year-old, he recalls realising he was forever changed:  ‘the student of the Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was the shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.’

One can’t help but be moved by his desire to protect his father in spite of his ambivalence. He relates with impressive honesty his secret relief at the thought of being freed from filial responsibility; his enormous guilt about not intervening when his father was beaten brutally on his death bed. Bearing the shame for such thoughts and inaction for the rest of his life.

He doesn’t shrink from the question: Where was God? He has his own answers.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and the committee’s statement called him a ‘messenger to mankind‘, rising above his struggle to come to terms with ‘his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s  death camps’, to deliver a powerful message ‘of peace, atonement and human dignity’. And indeed, Elie Weisel dedicated the rest of his life to ensuring the world did not forget its own capacity for evil. As he said in his acceptance speech:  ‘If we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.’ … ‘Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.’ … ‘What all victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.’

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Challenging words for us all, the more powerful when they are spoken by a man who has himself lived through hell, who has never allowed himself to forget. Are we listening to the voices of victims today? Really listening. Remembering. Lending our voices to theirs. Or are we accomplices to evil?

As Oprah Winfrey said, this book ‘should be required reading for all humanity.’

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Fact, fiction and fabrication

You’ve heard me say it before: I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. I’ve dutifully read them all – well, of course I have; her trademark is an ethical question at the heart of the story. So I had to buy her latest one and … wow! it’s in a totally different league from her others. Nothing formulaic; no sense of déjà-vu at all.

But, as ever, she has thoroughly researched her material, and manages to ‘wear the learning lightly’. The descriptions of bread making are as delicious as the accounts of mass exterminations are harrowing.

AuschwitzA nonagenarian, Josef Weber, and a reclusive young woman, Sage Singer, meet in a bakery. On the surface they seem like improbable friends. For seventy years Weber has been hiding; hiding in full view of everyone. He is a model citizen; a much loved German teacher; an active youth worker; a lonely widower with only a dachshund for company. But unbeknown to his community, he is also a murderer; a former Nazi SS guard. Sage, on the other hand, is a young orphaned baker with a facial disfigurement, who works by night and sleeps by day, deliberately avoiding human contact, burdened by guilt. Is this meeting serendipitous? Or is there something more sinister behind it? After keeping his black secret all these years, what has prompted Josef to confess his past to Sage? And how will she react to his shocking revelation? Or to his request: he wants Sage to help him to die …?

Sage was brought up in a Jewish family (as Picoult herself was). Her grandmother, Minka, is a survivor of the Nazi atrocities and of cancer, who has never told her story … until now. And what a story it is – of depravity and courage, of brutality and love, of forgiveness and revenge, or murder and mercy. The first person account of Minka’s experiences of life in Nazi Germany, in Auschwitz, is told without sentimentality, and is all the more poignant and gripping for that.

In the past, Picoult has been given to overly analysing and revealing the psychology of her characters – in my view, anyway. In The Storyteller, however, she has left the experiences, the actions, the lives, to speak for themselves; a brilliant decision and one I’ve very much taken to heart. But she still manages to summarise profound truths in succinct dialogue:

 ‘When a freedom is taken away from you, I suppose, you recognise it as a privilege, not a right.’

 ‘I could never forgive the Schutzhaftlagerführer for killing my best friend … I mean I couldn’t – literally – because it is not my place to forgive him.’

 ‘If you lived through it (the Holocaust), you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.’

Minka, Sage’s grandmother, the storyteller, is at the core of this story. She lived ‘a remarkable life. She watched her nation fall to pieces; and even when she became collateral damage, she believed in the power of the human spirit. She gave when she had nothing; she fought when she could barely stand; she clung to tomorrow when she couldn’t find footing on the rock ledge of yesterday. She was a chameleon, slipping into the personae of a privileged young girl, a frightened teen, a dreamy novelist, a proud prisoner, an army wife, a mother hen. She became whomever she needed to be to survive, but she never let anyone else define her.’ She has also written a powerful fiction of her own.

Other threads – Josef’s story, Sage’s, Minka’s novel – are woven around and through this emotive core, creating at once an absorbing read, a sobering challenge, a powerful allegory, a warming family saga. And the whole leaves the reader asking: What is forgiveness? What is justice? What would I have done?

Highly recommended.

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Forgotten Voices

In the welter of Christmas Fayres and concerts, charity fundraisers, shopping, wrapping, writing, cooking, I’m very conscious of the many folk out there for whom this whole season is a nightmare – the bereaved, the lonely, the sick, the burdened. A frightening number of my own friends and relations fall into the special-card-category this year. No mention of ‘merry’, or ‘happy’, or ‘festive’. Perhaps a wish for peace. Or blank for my own message.

Thinking such sombre thoughts brings me to a book I read a while ago that gave me cause for some deep reflection.

In a former life I was Deputy Director of Research in the Institute of Medical Ethics, and for many years I studied the issues around the treatment of tiny and sick infants born at the very edges of viability. Mortality and morbidity statistics for this group of children are high, and sometimes difficult questions have to be asked about whether it’s wise and morally right to offer, or to continue, treatment. Crucial Decisions at the Beginning of LifeMy research involved listening to the firsthand experiences and opinions of 109 bereaved parents in these kind of circumstances.

What a privilege. Interviews lasted anything up to five and a quarter hours at a sitting – sometimes well into the night – and I subsequently went over and over the recorded interviews in order to analyse and report their stories faithfully.

Now, you can’t immerse yourself in profound human misery of this calibre for many years without being affected in some way, and the effect of this accumulated heartbreak has remained with me ever since. It has changed my tolerance levels, it has altered my perspective on life in many ways.

So I was predisposed to respect the writing of Lyn Smith who spent 25 years recording the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. Her burden is immeasurably heavier than mine. But like me she has chosen to share these stories so that others might know and understand better. She’s used interviews with over 100 contributors to assemble a powerful oral history of the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime in Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust.

The book is carefully structured, covering the changes before the war when persecution began, the creation of the ghettos, the inhumane treatment of the concentration and death camps, the resistance movement, death marches, liberation, and the trauma of the aftermath. It begins rather mildly and somehow the evil creeps up on you, devastating in the power of first person accounts, even though the essential stories are well known. And I was totally unprepared for the horrors that continued after repatriation.

As Laurence Rees says in his foreword, ‘This book will trouble you deeply.’ It will. I’m not going to attempt to give you a flavour of it. You need to hear the voices of Kitty, Joseph, Rena, Roman, Alicia, Maria, Charles, and their fellow-sufferers for yourself. And you need to build up to the unbelievable treatment they endured simply because they were Jews or gypsies or Poles, or Jehovah’s Witnesses or homosexuals or some other so-called ‘subhuman’ species deemed unworthy of life.

This is not a book for the faint-heated – no surprises there. Tales of persecution, torture, murder, rape, make discomforting reading, and these personal but stark, unembellished accounts describe a depth of depravity grotesque beyond words. And yet these people survived, against the odds. What’s more they found the courage to relive the horror, the words to capture the pictures and emotions, the spirit to go on. And sometimes even to forgive.

Nor is it unmitigated darkness and despair. Despite the brutality and degradation, the fear and nightmares, the stories are lightened by flashes of humour, by memories of astonishing and inexplicable acts of kindness, by glimpses of dignity and compassion, by a remarkable lack of vengeance, by amazing demonstrations of courage.

Lyn Smith expresses the hope that ‘Gathered together … this mosaic of voices gives access to the complexity and human reality behind the abstract statistics of extermination and allows readers to see beyond the stereotypes of what constitutes a “victim”.’ I believe it does.

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