Hazel McHaffie

Poland

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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Maritime disasters

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’m at the stage of saying: If this is Plymouth it must be Sunday! But in zooming from the Outer Hebrides to Devon with trips to assorted cities in between, there’s been ample opportunity to appreciate what a beautiful country we live in. With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, everything lush and flowering, the countryside is glowing in its prime.

But one evening stroll brought me back to earth in a quite unexpected way. It was Monday: then this much be Lichfield!

Lichfield is a place I’ve never visited before and expected only to overnight in, but events required a second day there leaving an evening free to explore. And what a lovely city it is – especially when the cathedral bells are peeling out during Monday night practice! My footsteps took me to the parks and there I found a statue of Commander Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. We’ve all heard of the ship of course, but how many knew its captain, I wonder? Not I.

My thoughts unravelled to a book I’ve just finished reading: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. The Titanic, the Lusitania … yes, their names are embedded in our vocabulary. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And yet this ship was at the centre of the worst disaster in maritime history. Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went down; 9400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland in 1945.

This historical fiction breathes life into a neglected tragedy. It’s a young adult novel set during World War II, beginning in January 1945, as the Third Reich was beginning to collapse. The Russians were gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, got underway. Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region migrated to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans.

Four young people lie at the centre of this tale; four very different characters, all bearing haunting secrets, all seeking to flee from those who hunt them. Emilia is a shy pregnant Polish teenager pretending to be Latvian. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse full of compassion but weighed down by guilt. Florian is a Prussian with a ruthless agenda, carrying a priceless stolen artefact. German Alfred is bent on showing the world he’s a hero, though in reality a coward at heart, living in a fantasy world. No one knows whom they can trust. Their disparate circumstances bring them together on the Wilhelm Gustloff as they join the teeming masses desperately seeking safety and freedom.

By the time the deadly torpedoes are unleashed we know something of the scenes of horror and destruction these young eyes have witnessed, we know their private burdens, we’re willing them to reach their goal. Unlike them we know what lies ahead, but that foreknowledge takes nothing away from the tension of Sepetys’ writing. Extremely short chapters, brisk sentences, one voice at a time taking its turn, sparse language, everything conveys the perspectives of youth and tentative lives lived minute by minute.

Salt of the Sea was loaned to me by my youngest granddaughter, aged thirteen, herself an avid reader. It’s written for her age group but well worth the attention of any age. And a sobering reminder of the tragedy of war and how quickly sacrifice and hardship can be forgotten. Our present day comfortable lives are built upon the sacrifice of others; let’s not forget.

 

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