THE EYEWITNESS 1 They are herding us toward the showers. I see a long trench blazing with flames, I hear screams, children crying, dogs barking, gunshots. I see leaping shadows, half hidden behind the high flames. Smoke, ash, and the smell of burnt hair and flesh fill the air. “This cannot be true,” cries someone near me. Women, children, and invalids are chased, alive, into the flames by German shepherds. A wave of heat, then shots. A wheelchair carrying an old man plunges into the flames; a shrill cry. Small babies, white as lilies, trace an arc through the air as they are catapulted into the fire. A boy runs for his life, the dogs chasing him; he is pushed into the flames. His scream hangs in the air. A mother nurses her child at her naked breast. She and the baby fall into the inferno. One swallow of mother’s milk, for eternity.
Adam saw it, Adam knows it, he knows something we do not know, something we will never know. But he survived it. Even he doesn’t know what the dead know. He feels the guilt of the survivor. Writing helped him survive. He wrote there
, and he wrote in German. Adam: I am a German; it was they who made me a Jew. German is my mother tongue. When I couldn’t go on, when it became so unbearable that all I wanted to do was to jump into the fire with my fellow sufferers, into that pit of burning human beings, then I gave it all to German, my mother tongue, as if only she could heal this, she alone. Here, read it: I cannot forget.
And he handed me one of his pages, covered with tiny script. But life must go on
, he continued. And stared straight ahead. When he enters the room, you feel only him, he fills up the room, the whole house; his presence changes the space around us. No one speaks, everyone is silent, when he enters the room. This is Adam, who was there
, a member of the crematorium Sonderkommando, a man who has something within him we cannot comprehend: Adam is alive, he exists, really
. I could look him in the eye, touch him, eat and walk and talk with him, feel his silences, his descent into himself, his way of being there and yet not … not there, like being dead, and yet still living … at those trenches … back then. Then? But they are here, now, they will never go away … Adam: Then suddenly—I never felt anything like it before, how can I even describe it?—I separated from my conscious self and changed over to the “other” side; I felt a strange sympathy with that SS man performing his difficult, murderous work in that almost unbearable heat … We looked at each other: this, THIS, it cannot, it must not, be happening. But it is! It’s real!
So Adam, the last Jew of Schäßburg, wrote. I had visited him at his home, and now, after leaving him, it felt like a final farewell, because he is old and sick. But I can still call him on the telephone, twice a week, and there are numerous letters, actual letters, and he gave me his diary, his “little rolls,” just copies, of course; and even though his head is like a death’s-head, with black, deep-set eyes, I can still reach him. His heart is damaged, and his broken bones never healed properly; they still ache from the icy winters in the camp (down to minus 37 Celsius), painful rheumatism, pneumothorax, and he has only one lung left (tuberculosis has calcified the other one), but he is alive, not dead like all his friends, his wife, his children, his parents; Adam is alive NOW …
He embraces his dead wife every day, he says. And there is something that permeates everything, gets into the earth or the floor, the flowers, the grass, the trees, the light gets grayer, still this deep-seated fear, it hollows out everything from inside, this fear: Adam: There are black beasts inside me, I hear their harsh, malicious laughter whenever it is quiet. Grim animals sitting in my rib cage. They crouch there, ominous, their wings folded back, or they cower somewhere hidden in my innards, so I can no longer dare seek refuge inside myself. Something uncanny is there, in the darkness inside me. I seek shelter outside, beside myself with fear. When I take strong pills, the pills themselves settle briefly in the fragile tissues of my brain, and dream my nightmare, until I awake with a start, hunted, chased into another dream … till suddenly it all dissolves, and then my arms turn black, and my wife who was turned into ashes THERE dissolves into grayness, the room, the walls crumble, not in glowing light, no, but into a gray nothingness, a dreary morning of ashes, everything crumbling into ashes, ashes … Everything dissolves, the world now just a huge void, a gap … and then I wake up, as I did every morning at four, with whistles shrieking, commands shouted: Get up,
Aufstehen! Fertigmachen!! Get up, you swine, up! And I am back at the camp, as always. And then I know everything else was just a dream, a kind of holiday. All that matters are the people we know and once knew, the living and the dead. And we speak for the dead. We live for them. Perhaps they have opened up a way for us to reenter that realm, a realm whose forgetting made these crimes possible in the first place. They are the only reality left. Those who know it, those who were part of it. For me, everything else is gone.
Adam’s experiences cannot be told in words: It’s like that for us all,
Adam says, we who went through it, we come from another world … An abyss separates us from you, a sort of vacuum of horror, it has to do with naked life itself, and little to do with the abyss between perpetrators and victims; unless, perhaps, everyone who does not know, or still thinks the way they did, is one of the perpetrators! For everything on earth has changed since THAT!
And he quoted a poem of Paul Celan, speaking to himself softly, very softly, for now it was the dead speaking, the victims, the murdered ones, it seemed, coming from beyond the border back to us, the living, as if wanting to give us hope and comfort, because everything was different now, because that old death no longer existed, because we didn’t need to fear it anymore, for now THEY were actually there, quiet, hopeful, but barely audible: If there can be any sense in the death of millions of victims, it would have to be in the sheer crazy hope that a crossing has opened on the frontier between life and death. Celan: “In the mills of death you grind the white meal of promise, / you set it before our brothers and sisters / we shake out the white hair of time … and let something now come which never was before! / Let there come a human being from the grave.”
Adam’s tiny rolls of paper, which looked like miniature papyri written in German, contained things that even he had forgotten, indeed, that he had to forget, so he could go on living. He pulled out these rolls, as if they were the witnesses, and not he, as if it had all started with them … He took them hesitantly from the ancient, beat-up desk, tentatively, as if they didn’t belong in the everyday world, things that could not be seen or felt, like copies of burned Torah rolls … that was how he touched them, these yellowed paper rolls … lying in his open hands … He bent over them … sniffed them … then held them out to me … as if he wanted to tell me something that was impossible to impart in any other way … and no, they didn’t smell like old paper … They still had smoke, ash, and the smell of burnt skin on them … I hear Adam speaking, I hear his telephone voice, telephone conversations that went on for hours … I hear his tape recorder voice. And I hear his “real” living voice, slightly nasal, quiet, deliberate. And of course, he always spoke in German, German words, German sentences. Once I had asked him how he could possibly bear speaking German after “that.” At this he became very angry, he shouted: But it was these SS guys who wanted to turn me into a Jew, before that I didn’t even know I was a Jew—I was a German with this language I had babbled even as a baby. It comforted me, this language, it wept within me, this, my language. I clearly heard its weeping when these human animals—they did come from Germany, yes, they were “Germans,” but could not speak proper German—when these animals would shout their false “German” phrases, these analphabetics who could only bark German like dogs. I refused: I was the German, and they were the animals, clearly, and they did not succeed in making me a Jew. I am a German AND a Jew
, a gift
—he laughed bitterly—may it remain part of me and all my feelings, my very existence, my poems and diaries, these un-Germans and murderers cannot be allowed to win, even afterward, and claim that THEY stand for what is “German.”
But where is Adam? Was it a dream, Adam’s existence? No, we breathed the same air in his house in Schäßburg, his home, we spoke with each other night after night in this quiet small town. The little “rolls” were there, too, I could touch them, they seemed to glow, to burn up, fire without ash, but I could read what they said, it’s right there
, forever, the horror of the experience can never be erased, it is burned into us who read it, shuddering; and in none of the documents, none of the other reports, does it reach out to us, as it does here, and become a nightmare. Day after day I read them, but would break off, again and again, would think I was dreaming, and then, after many sleepless nights, I had become someone else, someone who was continuing this writing; it was as if the writer who could put that reality down on paper was only now appearing, as it took shape from behind a thick fog of knowing and forgetting. And now, here it is before you, entire, in your life, but so late
! I kept hearing Adam’s warning words: You have to do something, you must help, the world coming after us must know it as exactly as possible.
Perhaps the immediacy of the horror in these rolls is because Adam wrote it down while experiencing the horror, he wrote it in THAT unfathomable nightmare that was Auschwitz, in all its inconceivability still THERE, finding direct expression in the German words of a Jew, amplified, still echoing down to us today. The other eyewitnesses did not report their experiences until testifying at the trial twenty years later, often halting, weeping, or writing it down … This was the painful experience of Ella Salomon, a teacher, and her mother, Gisela Böhm, a pediatrician, both of them from Schäßburg. Ella Salomon:
“We were witnesses in Frankfurt in 1964 at the Auschwitz trial and with the aid of tranquilizers, and with microphones in hand, we testified before a large audience, among them sociologists, students of law and other fields. They got their lecture
from living witnesses.“It was very difficult for us to be among the people of this, the enemy’s land. Every stone made us weep, every word hurt. We were badly burned children. “The women from the former resistance movement had prepared a reception for us at the airport in Frankfurt. They all embraced us warmly right after we landed. One of them was Emmi Bonhoeffer …“My interrogation in the courtroom lasted over an hour; my mother’s took two hours. Emmi and some of the Marian nuns were present. It was very heartening to see them there, because Attorney Laternser, Capesius’s defense lawyer, treated us in a very derogatory fashion. He bombarded us with misleading, confusing questions. When he asked me about my tattoo number and I said I no longer knew it by heart, he gave me a look of scornful disgust. And on top of that, the next morning the Frankfurter Allgemeine
reported that I had been theatrical.” Or the other witnesses in the chamber during the Auschwitz trial: the audience at the trial sat there, numb and wideeyed with horror, looking at the woman in the witness chair. She had just described in a calm voice the torturing of prisoners in the notorious “Boger swing,” and at that point, words failed her. In halting phrases, she told how one day fifty children, aged five to ten, were brought into the camp on a truck. “I remember a four-year-old girl …” Her voice broke off then, and her shoulders began to heave; as the witness wept despairingly, numb horror spread through the courtroom … Adam: You see, although I had been called as a witness, I could not go to Frankfurt because of serious illness and constantly recurring health problems at the time resulting from my experiences in the camp. But others did it for me …
I told Adam what had moved me, and asked him why the horror of reading his ashen script had affected me so deeply, differently than other reports from hell. You know, that’s not quite right,
he said. I am not talking about feelings, even from the abyss, but about these unimaginable realities, especially at those trenches … “Small babies, white as lilies, trace an arc through the air as they are catapulted into the fire …” As I just now
read what I had really
experienced back then, I was convulsed with horror, and I was back in that very condition that I had, thank God, forgotten about … But it was that way, just that way … Many of my fellows have related the same unbelieveable cruelties, just think about Filip Müller, or about Dov Paisikovic in the Sonderkommando, or about Gideon Greif’s book,
We Wept Without Tears. Or the book by Mengele’s assistant, Dr. Miklós Nyiszli. And one thing you mustn’t forget: May and June 1944, when our fellow Transylvanian Jews were dying in the gas chambers, the most horrendous May in human history, when up to twenty thousand human beings, not soldiers in huge battles, but month after month, day in day out, from morning to evening to night, girls, women, babies, children, and old people, suffocated screaming in the gas chambers. Even for Auschwitz this was the absolute peak! In a period of about nine hundred days over six hundred death trains arrived at Auschwitz, with over a million Jews, and approximately twenty thousand Sinti and Roma [Gypsies]. Day after day, night and day, the SS was carrying out mass extermination. Most of the victims went straight to the gas chamber. Twenty minutes after the Zyklon B was inserted, the doors were opened, and the prisoners ordered to clear out the bodies found up to two thousand naked corpses all tangled together. Babies, children, sick people, trampled to death on the floor; that’s where the gas got to first. Above them the women, and on top the strongest men. To save money, mostly they didn’t throw in enough Zyklon B, so that the killing could take as long as twenty minutes while the weakest lay at the bottom in their final agony. For each gas chamber of two thousand people, they used sixteen five-hundred-gram canisters. Each canister cost five reichsmarks. It was the “last hurrah” for these, the greatest executioners of the last thousand years, and it went on till November 1944. Up until March 1944 the Jews of Hungary and Transylvania had lived in a protected enclave. Till March the higher Hungarian military had shielded their Jewish citizens, they called them up as laborers into the army, and even Horthy protected them; there were 795,000 Jews in Hungary and Transylvania. You know, after the Vienna Treaty in 1940, northern Transylvania was declared part of Hungary. So everyone was spared until March 19. But suddenly Hitler no longer trusted Horthy, because he had begun negotiating with the Allies. So on March 19, German troops marched into Hungary. And Eichmann came to Budapest. He decided immediately: all the Jews of Hungary should be exterminated in a
Blitzaktion.And on May 4, 1944, they convened a conference in Vienna to set up the schedules for the transport trains … And from there it just proceeded like clockwork. All you have to do is check out the “
Kalendarium” of Auschwitz at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt am Main.
Adam showed me the text excerpt from his extensive archives, and read:
A conference was convened in Vienna on May 4, 1944, to set up the schedules for the transport trains that were to deport the Jews from Hungary. About 200,000 Jews were to be deported from ten camps in the Carpathians (Zone I); in the Transylvanian Region (Zone II) there were located around 110,000 Jews. From mid May on it was arranged that there would be four transports a day from these regions, with 3,000 Jews each. May 9, 1944: As a result of the speeded-up preparations for beginning the extermination of Hungarian Jews, Rudolf Höß, the highest-ranking officer of the SS garrison at Auschwitz, ordered that the unloading ramp and the rail line into the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, as well as the three train tracks on the ramp inside the camp at Birkenau, be finished as quickly as possible, and to get the as-yet-unused incineration ovens in Crematorium V into working order, and to excavate five trenches (three big ones and two smaller ones) for burning corpses, to renovate Bunker II for use as a gas chamber, and to dig even more incineration trenches by the bunker, and to construct barracks for the prisoners to undress in. In addition, Höß transferred the chief officer of the subcamp Gleiwitz I, Hauptscharführer Otto Moll, back to Auschwitz, and appointed him the commando leader of all the crematoriums, and gave him responsibility for all outdoor incineration of the victims killed in the gas chambers. Höß also ordered reinforcement of the Sonderkommando used in the crematoriums, and also of the “Canada” Sonderkommando, which was to sort through the prisoners’ plundered possessions, directing that additional prisoners be assigned to these units. Everything was kept secret. Even the courtyard in Crematorium III was hidden from prying eyes by a screen. Moll also ordered that tables and benches be built in the yard at Crematorium IV, as he realized that it was impossible to fit the masses of condemned human beings into the gas chambers simultaneously. For those waiting victims the tables and benches served as an additional undressing area in the open air, since the locker room inside the crematorium was not big enough for the countless numbers of doomed men, women, and children.
In Capesius’s documents this description of the extermination process was found:
The apparatus of extermination ran smoothly. The staging and running of the transports was carefully prepared. The camp commanders were notified of the arrival of a transport via telegrams and radio messages, and they would then give further instructions to the detention camp leaders, the Political Department, the office of the SS garrison doctor, the truck drivers’ unit, the guard detachment, and the work deployment office. Each one of these units involved with the “handling” of a transport had a specific duty roster for its “operation” [Einsatz
] in “special actions” [Sonderaktionen
] on the unloading ramp …
Copyright © 2006 by Verlag J.H.W. Dietz Nachf. GmbH
Dieter Schlesak is a German-Romanian poet, novelist, and essayist. He is a member of the German PEN Center and the PEN Centre of German-Speaking Writers Abroad, and has received scholarships and awards from numerous organizations, including the Schiller Foundation and the University of Bucharest. Schlesak was born in Transylvania in 1934 and has lived in Italy and Germany since 1973.
John Hargraves has taught German literature at Yale University and Connecticut College. He is the author of Music in the Works of Broch, Mann, and Kafka and has translated works by Hermann Broch and Elias Canetti, among others. His translation of Michael Krüger’s novel The Executor was awarded the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. Hargraves lives in Manhattan and Connecticut.