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May 1, 1996 -- Vol.1, no.1

(Chapter 8)
by Alan Jacobs

The following piece is a chapter from an unpublished fictional memoir entitled "Conversations with Gratowski".

He stands there on the ramp watching after a vanished life; his family gone. What will the SS do to them? He fights off the terrible images. They have been together through everything and now, at what seems the last place, they are separated, torn apart without being given even a few moments to say goodbye. Perhaps this is because they will see each other soon enough. The officer did say tomorrow, didn't he?

The selections continue as a few more people join his line. Many, many more are sent to the other side; the trucks, the crying, the roars. Everyone feels the rending. Almost all have someone on the other side. The SS physician selects calmly. After what seems a very long time the men and women in his line are separated and marched off the ramp, each to their respective camps. There are many camps side by side here, each holding thousands of prisoners.

The men enter the gate and are embraced by the waiting arms of Birkenau; claws of white concrete with electrified barbed wire strung tight from one hooked white post to another. There are hundreds of them: tunnel after tunnel of constriction. The spider has embraced them; tentacles groping for new food to quell it's insatiable lust for innocence. With each step they are deeper in the grasp. They march in a ragged column of fives a couple of yards from either side of the fence. They hear the humming current. They imagine its touch. He wonders if his wife and child have been taken to a similar place, if they too are suffering the pangs of fear and worry. Shoulders slumped, with heavy chests and hanging heads they trudge along to the jeers of older inmates on the other side of the fence who make jokes about the way they are marching:

"If you march like that tonight you will be smoke tomorrow", someone yells from across the wire.

He doesn't understand yet, what this means. He thinks it odd that men should make such obscure jokes. Perhaps it takes some time to understand the life here. But his heart is very heavy with thoughts and fears about his wife and child. Everything here, the fence, the wire, the clay road, the sky, the striped uniforms, the whips, everything, conspire to create eerie, surreal distortion. Its like being on the moon. And the smell, especially the smell, staining everything. Nothing seems familiar here. All is changed. Even faces are altered by some powerful metamorphosis. Cheeks, eyes, lips, and jaws all are frozen as if they were treated with some powerful fixative. Hands move, people walk, their arms swinging, legs carry people forward, yet there is no motion.The sun shines yet all is grey.

There is still much noise from the trucks and the SS. These, combined with the many camps and work parties, create a great racket. It is like a silent, slow motion film simultaneously in stereo and triple speed; one must slow feelings to hear the silence of death beneath the din of rage and fear. And then you must quicken your sense perception and reaction time in order to maintain a physical presence capable of surviving.

One must forget the past quickly, family, friends, job, and at the same time remember in order to remain human, to hope. Usually, we experience these things of the ordinary world physically, in a heartbeat, a tight chest, a salivating desire. If this man and his fellow misˇ rables in this ragged line are to survive here, they will have to learn to just remember them. Here one only recalls ordinary feeling, uses it to signal danger. It is separate from experience, from passion. Revenge, love, hate, horror, all are enemies here, useless accouterments of a lost world. The only constant is terror.

He sees the women's camp and wonders if they will be in there. There are many women walking about in various garb: some in civilian clothes with stripes painted down their backs and others in striped camp uniforms. Some women are walking about in utter fatigue. They are thin, emaciated and look like corpses. Yet somehow they move as if still alive. They walk forward but seem to move in the opposite direction; like going the wrong way on an endless conveyer. Every so often he sees one of them try to talk but no sound comes. They are like tall, jerking ostriches, gawking and flapping, craning around as they studiously pick up one foot, then another, looking for something to swallow. Direction doesn't matter. They step, then stop, and then try to recall if the foot in the air is supposed to come down next or remained suspended. The other? or the same, already forgotten; like a drunk trying to remember how it all works. The drunk though, is concentrated. These women look ashen, impassive, glazed: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the London Wax Museum. He is suddenly shot through with fear as realizes there are no children with these women, then he relaxes as he concludes this must be where they put the single women.

The others are also looking for their loved ones. They look through the wire. Someone has strung it here to stop each from reaching the others. He imagines them stringing it, now, today. He can imagine all the activity involved in putting it between people. Why? For what reason do they bring us here like this? Why do they treat us so? Just because we are Jews? Can't they see we are good people ? Can't they see we have no intention of harming anyone and just desire to be left alone to fend for our families? Will we be able to see them tomorrow? If they won't allow us to be together will they at least let us see them through the fence? This world here is so unlike the one they have come from, even the world of the ghetto. They were just together on the transport, next to one another. Now it is like they have always been apart. It reduces the needs to touch, to hold and embrace, the needs to feed and protect and caress, the needs for privacy and quiet lovemaking to a passionate, overwhelming desire to simply look at someone, if only for a short while, through a maze of barbed wire and gates and walking skeletons groping for their shadows. Just to look. That would be enough. Just to gaze on their physical presence. In three hours the atmosphere here has reduced their affectionate impulses to just this, looking. It is enough, simply, to verify existence.

These men are taken to the Sauna, where new arrivals are processed. Everything is taken away here. Every bit of clothing and scrap of identification. Item by item, the last vestiges of the individual are stripped from this man, leaving him naked, frightened and despondent. Even hair: the barbers use large mechanical clippers to shave to the scalp. No hair? It seems a small thing. It is, until it happens to you. It is another step in the calculated process of depersonalization. It makes everyone look the same. Friends, relatives and acquaintances often fail to recognize each other. They take everything here, even identity, leaving only pulse, respiration and metabolism and, perhaps, an idiosyncratic walk or gesture. They make Ka-Tzetniks of them quickly. Facial characteristics and expressions of a lifetime disappear here. New ones replace them instantly.

Ears, used to hearing people laugh and cry, have become huge antennae, standing out in bold relief from the skull, scanning the air for anything resembling human sound. For here, there are strange new sounds which must be recognized quickly: the growling of SS, Kapos, dogs, trucks, the sound of boots on gravel, the cocking of a Luger or a Schmeiser; the tinkling of a metal ladle in a pot, the sound of silence as one watches his friends disappear pound by pound. They will learn to recognize the sound of the gong ripping them from their only refuge, a stinking, lice ridden, filth infested sleep, or the sound of it bidding them crawl into the hutch and perform the nightly ritual, a pretension of rest, death's rehearsal. In Auschwitz, a person listens to the sounds of his own breathing in order to determine life, listens for the sharp crack of a whip on his neighbors back or the clunk of a club on a hutchmate's skull. Have you ever heard food explode in your mouth and hit the bottom of your stomach like steel ball bearings bouncing on a wooden floor? Ears here will become handles for Kapos as they fling sacks at will. Ears where people, imagining they are lice, fantasize crawling to hide.

Eyes softened by looking at children and women and color are set hard in the fixed gaze of men staring at their own horror show. Dark discs imbedded in concentric rings of yellow worry. They will lose their ability to distinguish between death and sleep, day-and-night-mares. They dart about here in the Sauna from one face to another trying to discover anew faces now stripped of everyday familiarity. The transformation is rapid. It is like getting used to the dark after a walk in the sun. These eyes, used to looking at watches and clocks will tell time now by the amount of fat on one's arms and the sagging skin on a friends frame. Used to looking at loved ones, they will now have to rely on inner pictures. They will to turn their eyes around in their heads trying to recall images of those so sweet and dear. Then, they will try to separate the pictures from the last frozen images on the ramp. They will fail and their eyes will burn them, inside. They will hurriedly turn them out. They will be burned again.

Their mouths are tight and cracked from thirst as they learn to swallow dryness as if it were clear water from a cool spring. Time will be told by the meal and by the pain in one's innards. They don't speak here in the Sauna. They clench their jaws and swallow their fear. The only jokes they will tell later, if they survive for a few weeks, are course, scatological, those designed to desensitize the soul and harden the heart against breaking in a thousand pieces on the haphazard crazy quilt of survival. Their mouths, already changed almost beyond recognition, will learn to transform the most disgusting into tasty morsels of imagined delicacy.

They look at each other and they smell the sweet aroma of roasted meat. They are hungry and encouraged by the prospect of eating. This smell wafting across their nostrils, filling their noses, creating hopes of a hot meal, will never leave those who survive. It will be with most of them the rest of their lives, in the street as they pass a neighbors' barbecue, in their kitchen as they take a roasted chicken from the oven, in a restaurant as they fight away images of black smoke pouring the flower of their people into the air.

They are sent to the shower where the SS decide to have fun. The real lessons of Auschwitz begin, where cruelty experienced elsewhere seems like a children's game. They are forced to stay under the water while it is made hot and then cold repeatedly, an alternation designed to accustom one to the resident logic: if you can't bear what is happening you have a choice, you can die or, you can wait a moment for it will change to something equally unbearable. The SS watch and jeer and have a great old time with this game as men jump and flinch and protect themselves. Get too far out of the shower and you get a club across your shoulders, or in the mouth. Some men are so frightened they lose control of their bladders and bowels creating a mixture of blood, feces and urine on the cement floor. They slake their thirst here as best they can, keeping their shivering bodies in the icy water as it changes, sending a rush of hot water down their throats. The Germans think this is very funny. They laugh and point and slap their thighs as these men are further reduced to insect status. They are like the small boys pissing on an anthill, laughing gleefully as they enjoy inflicting pain and death; it makes them powerful.

The men are marched outside wet and made to stand in the cold spring air; no family, no proof of who they were, no clothes, no hair, just a belt to hold the grotesque clowns pants they will be issued. Or perhaps they will use it to simply hang themselves. They stand at attention for three hours while people come and hit them, scream incomprehensible German phrases at them. Some of them fall down and die from exhaustion and exposure, dead, right in the dirt. Right there, just to the side, another collapses and drops down in the clay of Auschwitz, dead. The man knows one of them well. They were schoolmates and worked together for a while. He remembers talking with him, back home in 1939, about the Germans and wondering if they would invade Poland. Neither of them thought they would. He thinks of the cattle car from the transit camp and how they talked of what would become of them and their families. He saw him on the ramp a few hours ago and he looked healthy. He didn't seem to be in any trouble. He was looking for his parents and his wife and child. He looked all right and now, here, without even a blow, he has fallen over dead. The man feels a strange mixture of fear, gladness and guilt. He is afraid that it will happen to him, very glad that it hasn't and guilty that he isn't mourning or even sorry for his friend. Such are the initial reactions to camp life. Did you know that shouts can kill?

Eventually they are marched quick time into the tattoo room and are given a card with a number on it: 117221; 117222, and so on...Soon they are seated at a table where a prisoner imprints the number in their left forearms with a needle. Then, he rubs the small wounds with dye; a tattoo designed to identify their corpse rather than to just insure identification in the camp, or after escape. The few who do survive will carry it with them for life, a little memento from the Third Reich; the only jewelry bestowed on its guests. In the US Military, people carry dog tags with a little slot in one end, this to permit the graves registration people who collect your body on the battlefield to jam it between your teeth, thus insuring proper identification. In Auschwitz, grave registration is in your arm; not a mechanical industrial innovation, more a perfunctory atavism, along with death on the installment plan.

Years later, the few who make it out of this place will almost forget the number is in them until they do something casual like reach across a counter and feel the clerk's discomfort as she spots it and quickly looks away as if she's walked in on her grandfather sitting on the can. It will be hard to answer young children's questions: "Grandpa, what's that funny looking number on your arm? Can you wash it away? Does it come off? Where did you get it? Were you borned with it? Could I have one? That's funny Grandpa. Why did they do that to you Grandpa? Did you have a family? What happened to them?" Some people will see it as a badge of honor. Others will see it as a mark of degradation and humiliation. Most won't know. It serves notice on any last illusions of normal personhood. He no longer has a name. He is a number, seriatim, one among only seventy thousand survivors with the blue dog bite of the Third Reich in their skin.

Finally, they are thrown some ragged camp uniforms, filthy rags that reduce them to their oppressor's images. Now that it is easy to believe what the Nazis think of them. Now, one can believe that what they are making of them is what they really are. It is a dangerous time. And when they see each other like this, they sink even lower, wondering if their loved ones will be treated as harshly. They are shocked by the abrupt change in the other men's faces; tragicomic clowns frozen in expressionist horror: each, Munch's screamer on the bridge.

They are given ill fitting wooden clogs, rarely the same size that will be the source of much misery and death. They will cause people to slip and fall in the muddy clay and give the oafs still another excuse to smash skulls. They will cause dangerous blisters which, because of the prisoners' weakened condition can easily become infected and fester, causing blood poisoning, gangrene and the like. A simple blister, which in ordinary life is cleansed and bandaged while the offending shoes are adjusted with a pad or some softening, here becomes a very real threat to existence. The ill fitting clogs are instruments of death. Everything here, in fact, is designed to kill, either quickly or slowly. This isn't a concentration camp like Dachau or Mauthausen or Ravensbruck, hellish enough places. No. This is where they kill you outright, or work you to death by using you up. This is the death camp. If the gas doesn't get you, some German, Polish or even a Jewish Kapo might bash your skull with a heavy club or make you lie on your back while they stand on a club across your throat rocking back and forth until they break your trachea, squeezing the last air out of you. If the raging typhus doesn't dehydrate you dead, a doctor in the camp hospital, deeming you incurable, might give you a phenol injection in the heart. If thirst and hunger don't get you, a selection deeming you unfit for further work might send you to the gas. And then there is always whim and chance. An SS doesn't like your nose. A Kapo, in order to keep his job, beats you to death in order to impress an SS officer who happens to glance in his direction, or you sneak into the soup line for a second helping, are caught and spread over the brick stove in the barrack and flailed with a cane till the white of your spinal cord shows, or someone escapes and you are shot as a hostage; a few, of the myriad dangers facing you along the helter-skelter tightrope of survival. Some few will make it, a little over one percent. Years later, if they are honest, they'll tell you the major reason for survival was luck. True, things like accepting the camp as it was, maintaining hope and making fast decisions were very important. But it was most probably determined by whim and chance, sheer, blind, stupid luck.

They are marched to their barracks where they might have a chance to talk with one another for the first time since arrival. Along the way they are met with jeers and jokes by older inmates. Someone calls "Where is your family? What have they done with them?" Another calls: "Don't worry about them they are fine. They won't experience any more discomfort. See that smoke over there?" The man seems detached from the sound of these words. It is like we are watching a horror film where a high pitched, staccato voice is dubbed over his and is just slightly out of sync. The men don't understand. It isn't possible. The man thinks about that last moment of parting, her wave, the child, the snatch of green in the distance. No this isn't possible. How could these men still be alive if their families are dead?

Soon they are made to run a gauntlet similar to what Gratowski described. They are beaten by prisoners and SS who have been kind enough to form the welcoming party. They try to trip the newcomers. When they succeed, as they often do, they rain blows, kicks and insults on the unfortunate fellow. A young man falls, blood splattered all over him and those nearby. A very young man, barely an adult, is helping his father by holding him under the arm and around the waist. Suddenly his father takes a blow on the head and falls. The young man takes a step and thinks: should he continue running? Should he leave his father, perhaps already dead? If he stops he will certainly be smashed to the ground and, at the very least, beaten senseless. Won't he be wasting his life if his father is already dead? His mother will want him to protect his father. And she will want at least one of them to survive. Shouldn't he save his father? Doesn't he owe it to her to continue running, to save himself?

He takes another step as time is simultaneously slowed and accelerated; one expanding the moment into an excruciating speculation and the other compressing the past, their former life: the house, his mother, school, his friends, his father, walking home from work, Rachel, his sister, her beautiful girl friend, Dov, his bed, the books on the shelf above the rocker, his father's hands as they turn the pages, playing outside with his friends, kicking the ball, his mother standing by the sink filling the teapot and wiping her hands on her apron, sitting at the dinner table and his father telling his sister and him to stop laughing and their continuing, unable to stop as the milk comes running out their noses.

And time slowed, the present moment stretched. Should he return for his father? What will happen if he does? If he doesn't? Will he be able to live with himself if he continues running? What if he just looks over his shoulder to see if his father is still alive. But how will he know? Maybe he will be lying there very still, looking dead and just be unconscious, not seriously injured. How will he know?.

And His teacher's look, after he has answered correctly; a walk in the park on a hot summer evening, the feel of soft linen on his Sunday shirt just after his mother has washed and ironed it. And his father is on the ground. What should he do? The fight he had with that bully. He didn't beat him but he made him stop. The kid never picked on him again. And someone else goes down in front of him. The kapos and the SS surge toward him.

And he takes another step. Turning over his shoulder to look will mean he can't see a blow coming at him from the front. He might fall himself and then neither of them will survive. He thinks of going home after this is over and trying to explain to his uncles and his mother his decision to continue: "I looked back at Papa but he was already dead."

"How did you know?"

"I saw him lying there and he wasn't moving."

"But how did you know he was dead? Maybe he was just unconscious?"

"There was blood all over him. His skull was open"

They won't answer. They'll just look at one another and his mother will rock and cry the way she did when her father died. Just as he is about to turn, another man trips and, as he falls, is hit flush in the side of the head by a tremendous blow. There's a pop like a watermelon exploding on a sidewalk. And he thinks of his mother dropping the pitcher with the beet borscht. He ducks. It is too late and feels something warm and wet splatter on his face. He is covered with blood and brains. The pitcher was all over the floor and there was red borscht all over the dog. He loses control of his bowels. He falls, is hit in the ribs, rolls over and over, avoiding some of the clubs. He is kicked and whacked with a whip but gets to his feet. He receives a blow in the head but manages to start running, the other man's brains all over him. The ball is the only thing between him and the goal. He runs... runs... amidst the screams and the shouting and the blows and the blood and the brains and the terror and the memories and the smells of feces and blood and the horrible smell of fear unleashed. He runs.

And his father lies in the clay road, a body among others. He is bloody and twitches. He lies there in the clay face down, with his upper teeth in the ground, as if he were about to take a bite out of the planet. One eye hangs from it's socket and spittle runs from his mouth. Finally he makes a horrible gurgling sound and is still; a tree fallen in an empty forest, guilty of the crime of tripping.

Copyright © 1995, Alan Jacobs