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September 1, 1996 -- Vol.1, no.2

(Chapter 10)
by Alan Jacobs

The following piece is a chapter from an unpublished fictional memoir entitled "Conversations with Gratowski".


Kasia and I walk around the camp talking to various survivors. We meet them here and there, by chance mostly. There is often just a subtle, unspoken look or an expectant glance that signals something. At first I don't understand and don't notice. Fortunately Kasia does. Most of them are Poles. She knows the signals of her people. We hear many stories as we walk along the tracks and in the various camps in Birkenau. At first I am remote. I think of all the stories since I was a kid about Jew haters in Poland. No doubt they were true. No doubt. And because of this I fail to recognize that these Polish survivors suffered as much as Jews. Perhaps they were even anti-semites before their interment here. But it is hardly possible now, after. Is it? Following several tales of life in the camp, I start to listen. It is difficult. I feel guilty, like I am betraying something. To many Jews there are no "good Polaks". I have come to Poland with this attitude. One day merges with another as we make the trips back and forth from Oswiecim to Krakow. Stories merge also, and I begin to get a picture, even a feeling for what camp life was like, from Poles no less.

We accidently meet the caretaker of Birkenau with a face of furrows plowed in some nightmare, spreading like a fan, outward, from the bridge of his nose. He reminds me of Scarface from Dick Tracy. We discover him sitting on a bench outside the SS orderly room at the front of the camp, just where the track goes underneath the tower, exiting on the other side to become the ramp. He is old but looks like he is still able to do a good day's work. He is tall and well built for a man in his seventies. His name is Zawada. He's eating an apple with a knife as he looks up at us. There is a woman sitting with him in her mid-fifties. She looks at us also. They are both sitting there so casually, slouching against the back of the bench, like sitting in the park on a Sunday afternoon. They seem used to it.

He has known that we were here for some days, having heard we were listening to stories and were returning day after day. He waits for us, knowing we will come this way.

After Kasia introduces herself, he starts talking. It pours out of him. She can hardly keep up with the translation. He tells of running off to the Spanish Civil War in 1937 with the Polish brigade, to fight Franco and the Fascists. When the Brigade were defeated in 1939, he and some comrades crossed the Pyrenees into France, and gave up. The French interned him in their concentration camp at Drancy, where the jailers were as bad as the Germans. There was little to eat. Conditions were awful. In 1940 the Germans came. It wasn't exactly a picnic under them either. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, he walked home. He was given a job as the caretaker of Birkenau which he tended for thirty five years.

The woman, his daughter Zofia, was in Birkenau from February 1943 to January 1945, when she was liberated by the Russians. She looks suspicious, the way Kasia did that first morning in the Cracovia. There have been a lot of people through here; more than a few of them tourists. I try hard not to be one;. I am anyway. She is cautious and wary, nervous but direct. She tells horrifying stories very simply and keeps looking over her shoulder. She sits here day after day and talks, trying unsuccessfully to dim the shouts, the trains, and quiet the smells.


Women lucky enough to be chosen for slave labor are marched off the ramp, taken to the women's camp and processed; a preliminary to unimaginable suffering and horror that finds no adequate expression in our world, even now. It has not, as yet, found a way into our hearts and minds enough to change our ordinary, everyday brutality. Perhaps it never will. It is hard to listen with one's body.

A man's head is shaved bare. One notices the thickness of his features, his neck, his ears. Not so for women. What is noticeable is the head shorn of its glory, gaping raw and bumpy, with little ridges and waves; the back of the head, sticking out there in raw space, unadorned. It is a moment of extreme humiliation. To see a group of women thus shorn is to be reminded of chickens after they are plucked, or a shaved Afghan hound after an unsuccessful untangling trip to the local vet. They are utterly reduced, stripped of their subtlety, grace and flow. Necks are stretched and heads balance atop them precariously, like baked potatoes on a round peg. If you jostle them, the potato will fall off and roll away. They stand about in the Sauna in clumps, like bunches in a vegetable market waiting to be chosen, weighed, bagged and carted to the cooking stove. Some are the Irish type, small, round and smooth. Others are the sweet variety, some long and pointed, others twisted and bumpy. Still others are Idaho shaped, sort of elliptical with bumps and eyes all over them. But potatoes all, clumped together waiting to be sorted into various bins, waiting to be eyed, skinned, boiled, baked, roasted and consumed.

New compatriots, constant terror and slow death, join those already acquired in prison and on the transport: humiliation and degradation. Stripped naked, they are made to take showers in front of leering camp women and male SS who laugh and point. They cover themselves with their hands but it doesn't help. Afterwards they are made to stand at attention while an SS slob walks around and pokes casually at their genitals with a smooth, leather riding crop. After delays they are taken to very much the same greeting as the men.


What are these images staring back at me; who these creatures of grayness that reflect a trick, carnival-mirror image, distorted, surreal? Are they taller or just thinner, dying or dead, puppets on a string, jerking on the Birkenau stage, or players in some fantastic horror show? When they eat, am I eating? When they scream, it is I who find some sound there still, inside, some party toy noise which I emit like a chirping gosling about to be devoured by a minotaur? Am I as filthy and disgusting as they or is it just that the glass is dirty? Do they lie to me as well when I ask them how I look? Do they see themselves through me? We are, all of us, liars. I think if I told them the truth, I wouldn't believe it. The only truth is that we lie to each other in order to be true to all we have; another selection, another roll call, another bowl of soup, a bread ration... another day... another night. We all know this is true but we don't believe it.

My only mirror is the sight of the creatures with whom I share this place. If they are an accurate reflection, I am no longer human, no longer a woman; rather a loathsome creature, a grotesque caricature, a perversion of life, a starved distortion who no longer menstruates, dreams of children, wonders about poetry or yearns of romantic fulfillment. Head shaved, number in my arm, I scrape the surface in search of anything that will be absorbed... no not that, rather, anything that will fill me, the hole. Digestion, a luxury of the few, is reserved for the strong, for people who have the innards of mythological creatures: humans, free, thriving.

Tonight is my birthday, I think. I will be 1000 years old, my own age plus one year here, a millennial occurrence. What an occasion! I have become somewhat of a celebrity, surviving so long in this place. Is this a place? Or is this everywhere? If it is, there isn't any place. There isn't anywhere. There is only...this. And my birthday? An occasion! I will have a party. I will allow them to steal my bread ration in the evening and I will be happy about it. This happiness is the party I give myself and my guests. I can't give them the ration because they'll think I've given up and won't help me with the same lies. They will eat my ration and I will live another millennium. I will crawl into the hutch at night and imagine a most wonderful song being sung honoring my mouth, my stomach, my ribs. And tomorrow, at noon, when I get my soup... then I will celebrate. I will say: "See, I gave up a ration and I am still here". What will power! You see, I can even give my soup away in Birkenau! I am strong, resilient, persistent. I will prevail even though I don't exist anymore. This I know: I am still here. Aren't I?

Still here! But where is that? Is it here in the hole, or over there in my comrade where I see myself eating. Is it here in my three story hutch, or over there where the overflowing shit bucket sits calling to me, beckoning me to drag myself from the hutch and shuffle over the splattered floor to relief in explosive ecstasy, only to create a deeper hole in me. Am I here relieving myself on my comrades below or am I raining filth on myself from above? Am I in my own mess or someone else's, here or over there, in the hutch across, dead between two comrades in the night; dead but useful as a blanket, a Being here is also a lie for I am already dead. I merely pretend life, posture movement.

I play a game with myself as children do when they imagine longed for objects: dolls; fire engines; guns; beautiful dresses. I pretend I have found a piece of paper, not a notebook or even a full page of newsprint. In here a scrap will do. What will I do with it? Shall I read it or perhaps clean myself? Shall I use it to wrap the sausage and cheese Mama has given me for lunch or shall I wrap the cucumber or the potato? Maybe I will give it to my brother to make a glider or to my cousin Livia to wash her doll's face. I know! Of course! I know what to do with it. How could I have been so foolish?... I will eat it! And I will pretend it is the sausage and the cheese. I will take a bite of cheese and then a bite of sausage... then a bit of cucumber and a sip of water... I am so happy there is paper to imagine? What else would I do for dinner?

If I had a real scrap of paper I'd probably trade it for some string. I'd use this to fasten my bowl to my waist because if I lose it I'm a goner. Without this I can't eat; this my sink, my pillow, my overcoat - indeed, my chamber pot. Sometimes when marching to work I pretend it is my full belly bulging in front of me - taking more space than is allowed here, bouncing in front of me with an inflexible fullness. No matter there is little to eat, it will always retain its shape. It is my closest friend, this bowl of chipped red enamel, more valuable than precious china. It is a magic bowl, changing shape and depth according to circumstance: bottomless when waiting in the soup line and a mere thimble after I've vacuumed its contents, licked the surface of every crack and crevice.

Yes I will have a party celebrating my entry into that otherworld, gone as it is. But... I will eat my bread ration so that tomorrow I will be strong enough to stand in the soup line and pretend that I gave it up. This will make my friends happy for they'll look at me and see that I am happy and think that it is them.


We are standing outside in the evening. It is still light. We are scraps of discarded kindling stuck in the mud and covered with it. Achtung...Achtung: everybody stiff and attentive. The endless roll call is upon us again, weighing on us like a huge glop of stinking wet filth. The whole camp standing at attention; thousands and thousands of women beaten, degraded, ill, disgustingly unsanitary... standing... These ragged buffoons who stand row upon row in front of barrack after barrack are thirsty, starving and think they are still alive. My feet are stuck in the stuff. Good, it gives me support as I might have to stand for many years this evening. It is raining on us. It is raining on me, freezing rain. I watch it splash off the end of my nose. Good, I am having a bath. I see the fatty smoke billowing over the camp and feel happy that those who left us this morning - how long? - are returning to us now in this rain. We are reunited, my fellow sufferers and I. We are joined in the mud and the greasy rain. I lick my parched lips and take them into me; not the only form of cannibalism in Birkenau. Little did they know this morning they would be our sustenance this evening. Taken into our bodies they become us and through us live again for a while; drops of water off my nose.

They are counting us. This takes forever because someone is missing and it means the whole camp will stand until that person is found. She is probably dead somewhere stuffed under a pile of rubble. They are lousy counters, stupid chunks of beef, thick and slow and dumb. The only rapid reactions they possess are ones reserved for beating, raging and obeying superiors.

They count!... an exercise in sloth. They swagger and posture and wrinkle their low, thick, nobby foreheads and scratch them with their paws as they lose count and have to begin again. Eins, Zwei, Drei... Imagine, I am so valuable that if I disappear without their knowledge they will stop everything and look for me. How powerful I am!... Vier, Funf, Sechs... I can stop a whole camp by simply disappearing. Alive or dead makes no difference as long as I am part of the sum.

What they will never know is that I can stand right here amidst all of it and go away. It takes some doing but I have mastered it. Zen students spend lifetimes mastering the art of clearing one's mind of everything but now. I have learned here to make now nothing. Birkenau, more exacting than any master.

I can stand here splattered with mud and filth, with wooden clogs rubbing the infected sores on my feet, starving, thirsty, beaten, bowed and... I can feel nothing... Sieben.

Some faint. They fall right down in the mud. They give in and surrender to oblivion, a prelude to death. They let go of themselves, relax their grip on the handles and lets the strings go slack. They set themselves adrift in a sea of submission and drink the ecstasy of death. It is infinitely easier to sink here, to let go of life and pain. One stands here and thinks to herself about the past life: her mother, her friends, perhaps a lover, and then it is easy to let go.

But I have found another way... the way of the walking dead: To be here and not to be here. I have learned from them to make myself disappear while never moving. It is possible to draw oneself inside oneself, into empty spaces. Acht, Neun. Did you know there are sinkholes inside the body where you can hide if you find them? There are secret hollows that lie folded and compressed, waiting to be inflated by a fleeing soul. Did you know that once opened, these spaces will receive a wet, shivering, half frozen wretch into the warmth and security of nothingness? I can hide beneath this cracked parchment skin and I can pull all the nerves in with me, take them deep for soothing, keep them warm and safe even as the rain freezes me and the blows fall. Zehn...

The sky is dark now. The camp's lights glow and flicker in the rain. The fat Stubhova stands in front of us with a club, boots apart, hands on hips, in a clean striped prison dress and a black wool jacket with an arm band. She is clean, having washed in our tea, which she has then deigned to allow us to drink. She struts for the SS, standing apart in uniform, boots, leather riding crop and rain attire. Elf, Zw If... they miss me. I have withdrawn so far inside they don't even count me. I am here, you dolts... in here. Try and find me! I have so mastered the art of rage without the dangerous indulgence of anger, that I don't care what they do. They could drop down dead in their own blood and I would simply wonder when the roll call will end. I am so beyond ordinary anger that their existence doesn't matter. They are out there, somewhere beyond the boundaries. They are merely at the other end of the whip; an aberration to be avoided, a shapeless form disseminating pain. The normal world ends where the tip of the whip begins. Everything on the other side of it is monstrous.

I am in here, in my closet body, playing a game of Birkenau hide-and-seek. I'm in the shadows, withdrawn from my freezing fingers and toes. I peek out at them counting as they miss me, standing here right in front of them. I see them in segments as through a space in a fence. First comes a toe, then the rest of the boot, then a shoulder and an SS skull on a cap, a club or a whip attached to an arm, a uniform, the last boot and heel and then the soul. They walk on the other side of the slatted gaps my comrades in the front row form; another boundary separating victims and persecutors. I peek at them through the fence as they stop and point, counting the person on my right and, from deep inside my darkness, I see them count the person on my left. They have missed me. This means they will have to start again and we will stand here longer. Well, I'm safe in here and besides, they need the practice. Eins, Zwei, Drei...

They are secretly afraid we know they are dumb and they hate us for it. We have to stand here and wait for them to figure it out themselves, like stupid children. If we attempt to point out their mistakes they will punish us. The power of the stupid over the sensitive, in order to suppress their own reality, has no bounds. They will stop at nothing to create the illusion of superiority. Heine was right: first the books and now us. It isn't that they disagreed with what was written, no. They simply never understood what they read. It is at this moment that I must make myself into a piece of hollow wood, for these are dangerous thoughts that breed rebellion, revolt and inevitable death. Better to just withdraw into the dark and become inert.

The missing person has not been found. We are told we will stand here until she is accounted for. Someone in front of me falls, seems to come apart like a puppet. Her head, arms and legs separate from a wooden body held together with string and rubber bands. Falling is for bodies with substance, density. They occupy a length of ground, scatter over a small distance. Her's doesn't. Rather, it crumples in a heap. Legs, backbone, ribs, arms... head, collapse straight down as they clank against one another. The puppeteer has suddenly cut the strings below the handle and the doll comes apart in a clatter of disjointed limbs, like a burlap bag full of bones that has the bottom drop out. Everything about her collapses, all at once, in a sudden, final disintegration. She has struggled for years to survive; in the ghetto, on the trains, then the transit camps, on the trains again and in two labor camps, finally here in the death camp for seven months. She has been here seven months and has done everything possible to stay alive. She has hidden and fought and learned how to "trade". She has waged a bitter struggle against the odds and prevailed longer than most. She persevered stubbornly against the evil forcing her to slowly die. She seemed fine this morning. She spoke to me just before we went out for the roll call. She looked alright. She worked all day with me. We were clearing a marsh. I don't remember anything happening to her. She wasn't hit any more than usual and didn't complain about anything. She always stood so tall and erect in the row in front of me. As usual, I used her as a gauge of my own straightness, like lining up a board with a level. She looked the same this morning and then she just went... She was there in front of me and then she was down. She just died there standing at attention. She didn't even make a noise, not even a small one, until her body hit the ground. She was dead even before she started falling. She had great willpower and a great desire to live. She got every moment out of her life. Many would have given up and not crawled from the hutch in the morning. They would have died in their sleep, or at the marsh. She fought all the way to the end. She was here and then she was a pile of rags, stretched skin and bones in the mud. They count her too. All must be counted.

Finally the roll tallies. It is nearly midnight. All the numbers are accounted for. Am I the mud, or am I only in it? What is the difference between it and me? Certainly it isn't that I am aware of my own existence. We are both cold and wet and stuck to each other. We are both here at the roll call waiting to be released. I will take some of it into the barrack and it will keep some of me here. It will remain with me always, as a part of me will be left here on the parade ground at Birkenau. We finally are allowed to go to our barrack to eat, and sleep while we dream of eating. In four hours we will be stuck here... again.

Copyright © 1995, Alan Jacobs