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Auschwitz–Birkenau, January 1944
The Nazi officers are dressed in black. They look at death with the indifference of a gravedigger. In Auschwitz, human life has so little value that no one is shot anymore; a bullet is more valuable than a human being. In Auschwitz, there are communal chambers where they administer Zyklon gas. It’s cost-effective, killing hundreds of people with just one tank. Death has become an industry that is profitable only if it’s done wholesale.
The officers have no idea that in the family camp in Auschwitz, on top of the dark mud into which everything sinks, Alfred Hirsch has established a school. They don’t know it, and it’s essential that they should not know it. Some inmates didn’t believe it was possible. They thought Hirsch was crazy, or naïve: How could you teach children in this brutal extermination camp where everything is forbidden? But Hirsch would smile. He was always smiling enigmatically, as if he knew something that no one else did. It doesn’t matter how many schools the Nazis close, he would say to them. Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen, a school has been established.
In this life-destroying factory that is Auschwitz–Birkenau, where the ovens burn corpses day and night, Block 31 is atypical, an anomaly. It’s a triumph for Fredy Hirsch. He used to be a youth sports instructor, but is now an athlete himself, competing against the biggest steamroller of humans in history. He managed to convince the German camp authorities that keeping the children entertained in a hut would make it easier for their parents to do their work in camp BIIb, the one known as “the family camp.” The camp high command agreed, but on the condition that it would be for games and activities only: School was banned. And so Block 31 was formed.
Inside the wooden hut, the classrooms are nothing more than stools, tightly packed into groups. Walls are nonexistent; blackboards are invisible. The teachers trace isosceles triangles, letters of the alphabet, and even the routes of the rivers of Europe with their hands in the air. There are about twenty clusters of children, each with its own teacher. They are so close together that classes are whispered to prevent the story of the ten plagues of Egypt from getting mixed up with the rhythm of a times table.
* * *
The barrack door is flung open, and Jakoubek, the lookout, races toward the cubicle of Blockältester Hirsch, the head of Block 31. His clogs leave a trail of moist camp earth across the floor, and the bubble of calm serenity in Block 31 bursts. From her corner, Dita Adler stares, mesmerized by the tiny spots of mud, as Jakoubek calls out:
“Six! Six! Six!”
It’s code for the imminent arrival of SS guards at Block 31.
Hirsch pokes his head out of his door. He doesn’t need to say a word to his assistants or his teachers, whose eyes are locked on him. His nod is barely perceptible. His look is a command.
The lessons come to a halt and are replaced by silly little German songs and guessing games, to give the impression that all is in order. Normally, the two-soldier patrol barely enters the barrack, casting a routine glance over the children, occasionally clapping along with a song or stroking the head of one of the little ones before continuing their rounds. But Jakoubek adds another note to the customary alert:
Inspections are another matter altogether. Lines must be formed, and searches are carried out. Sometimes the youngest children are interrogated, the guards hoping to take advantage of their innocence to pry information out of them. They are unsuccessful. Even the youngest children understand more than their snot-covered little faces might suggest.
Someone whispers, “The Priest!” and a murmur of dismay breaks out. That’s their name for one of the SS noncommissioned officers, a sergeant who always walks with his hands tucked into the sleeves of his military greatcoat as if he were a priest, though the only religion he practices is cruelty.
“Come on, come on! Juda! Yes, you! Say ‘I spy…’”
“And what do I spy, Mr. Stein?”
Text copyright © 2012 by Antonio Iturbe