With Holocaust Memorial Day imminent (details at the end of this post), Goran Rosenberg’s deeply moving memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, compels us to think about why it is important to maintain the memory of the Holocaust – and to contemplate its meaning today.
For a long time I imagined him coming over the Bridge, since the Bridge is the gateway to the Place, and the key to it as well …
This is how Goran Rosenberg begins: with the man who will be his father arriving in a small Swedish town on 2 August 1947, a young man getting off a train having crossed the Bridge to arrive at the Place. The man has survived the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, and a series of deathly slave camps and transports during the final months of Nazi Germany. Now, in this place, he must come to terms with his memories.
Is it chance that makes him get off precisely here? No, not more of a chance than anything else on his journey. And presumably less, since the most chanceful aspect of his life is the fact that he’s alive. Naturally it’s only by chance that any of us are alive, but along his road death has been more of a strictly scheduled and predictable stop than it is for most of us, making the fact that he’s still alive a bit more unexpected.
Goran Rosenberg’s book is an exploration of memory: the memory of his childhood and the memory of a place and time. The place is a small industrial town in Sweden; the time the post-war years when wartime austerity is easing and the air is full of change:
The Place seems to offer a world in which every dream is feasible, since it’s a world where no dreams have been shattered, including the dreams that were shattered in the world you come from.
Born in 1948, and now in his sixties, Goran is meticulous in acknowledging the limits and the unreliability of his memories:
Let me be honest about the hindsight, since it’s pervasive, inescapable and treacherous. … Actually, to be perfectly honest, what I can remember of these events is fragmentary at best.
Rosenberg’s book is a meditation on the workings of memory and history in the lifetime of one family, a meditation that takes on especial weight and meaning for a man whose mother and father endured and survived the camps. Looking back now to the childhood he shared with his parents, he is wary of hindsight. He is equally vigilant when it comes to reconstructing the ordeal that his parents survived before he was born, an experience that is far beyond his reach.
Throughout the book, Goran writes as if addressing his father David, who survived the ghetto in Lodz and then Auschwitz and a series of lethal slave camps and transports across northern Germany in the last days of the war. He follows in his father’s footsteps, remembering and chronicling his tireless efforts to make a new life in the new world which rescue by the Swedish Red Cross opened up in the summer of 1945.
For Goran, born after the miraculous reunion of his parents – teenage sweethearts who survived four years in the Lodz ghetto before being separated on the selection ramp at Auschwitz – this new world was a place he made his own. But for his father, the survivor of a world of darkness beyond the comprehension of those he settles amongst, a chasm soon opens between the world of the child and the world of the father, whose memories draw ever-deepening shadows into the postwar world of optimism, progress and a collective desire to put the past behind:
The place where I make the world into mine, is also the place where the world turns its back on you, which is also the place where you finally turn your back on the world.
Rosenberg, one of Sweden’s most distinguished journalists, strives to piece together the memory of his father’s road from Auschwitz to a small town in Sweden from careful research, drawing upon family letters and documents, official papers, and interviews. But, sometimes he must assume what the evidence fails to reveal:
So where did you get on the train? So many stations no one remembers anymore. So many places that no longer exist. So many trains to choose from. So many trains that stop too soon and for good.
So I decide for you.
I decide that you get on the train at Auschwitz.
I know it sounds dramatic, even striking, or in the worst case theatrical.
And I admit that it’s hardly commonplace to get on a train in Auschwitz, since Auschwitz is the place where all the trains stop too soon and for good.
And of course you get on a train to Auschwitz as well.
On reflection I think that’s where I’ll have you start your journey, at the railroad station outside the Lodz ghetto at the end of August 1944.
The exact date of your departure is a lost fragment. ‘Eingeliefert [delivered], 26.VIII.1944, Auschwitz’ is what it says on a handwritten list drawn up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in April 1945. It’s a German list, compiled by the SS, so they must have got the date from somewhere, but what does ‘delivered’ mean? And how many days elapse between departure and delivery?
Can I write that you board one of the last trains from the Lodz ghetto to the selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau?
There are many things which Rosenberg cannot know with certainty, even after conducting his own exhaustive research:
I note down the exact figures and dates, in fact I scour the archives and sources for the exact figures and dates, because I want to reconstruct your world as you see it before it’s liquidated, and I need something to build it with, and I don’t know what else I can understand.
The almost unbelievable story of his father’s survival forms the first part of Rosenberg’s book. It’s a story carefully-assembled from his parents’ correspondence, the memories of survivors, court transcripts, newspaper accounts, concentration camp records, dog-eared photographs, and police files. In it he succeeds in tracing the path his father travelled from Auschwitz in August 1944, when he was among recent arrivals who were commandeered as slave labourers by German industrialists from the lines that led to the ovens. Rosenberg follows his father’s horrific journey through the archipelago of slave labour camps – Braunschweig, Ravensbrück and Wöbbelin – that dotted the countryside between Berlin and Hamburg:
I seize every opportunity to ask about the road from Auschwitz, since every road from Auschwitz is an individual miracle unto itself, as distinct from the road to Auschwitz, which is a collective hell shared by each and every one.
His account of Wöbbelin – located just five kilometres outside the comfortable, picturesque town of Ludwigslust – is particularly devastating. One of the last concentration camps to be set up, Wöbbelin operated for only ten weeks from February to May 1945. Its sole function, writes Rosenberg, was to kill off its inmates through disease, cold and starvation. When American troops chance upon the horror, they force residents of Ludwigslust to dig up the thousand bodies of the dead which have been flung into a mass grave and rebury them in marked graves beneath the Linden trees in the parkland between the elegant 18th century palace and the church, forever turning the town’s most beautiful place into a cemetery.
This underlines an important theme in Rosenberg’s narrative – the sheer impossibility for ordinary Germans to have been oblivious to the suffering and murders happening around them. It’s made clear in passages where Rosenberg tells how his father, along with other inmates of the camp archipelago, worked as slave labourers for German private companies; and Rosenberg discovers it as he follows his father’s trail through towns and villages across northern Germany. He spoke of this in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2014:
I’d been to Lodz and Auschwitz in the 1970s, but when I decided to write the book, it was obvious that I had to go back. Literally to follow in his footsteps. Emotionally, it was such a powerful experience: to travel on the train, as he did. That same accursed train of blood. To stop in the station at Uchtspringe, a small village in which thousands of patients were sterilized and murdered during the war in a hospital for the mentally ill. To know that the huge train that my father was on also stopped at that small, abandoned station, which was filled with bodies and half-dead people, in order to unload the bodies. It suddenly becomes so alive. The station is still there, with the sign.
It was a grey winter day. I felt as though it were happening again. In fact, the whole journey stunned me, in the sense of how close everything that happened was to the Germans. They insisted all along that they hadn’t known about Auschwitz, because it was so distant – but the residents of Ludwiglust, which is five kilometres from Wobbelin – certainly knew.
Goran recognises that his father’s story is an exceptional one – and how important it is that it should not be lost to memory:
Those who are on the road from Auschwitz are all exceptions, just as every road from Auschwitz is an exception. And since the few who reach the end of the road alive have rarely travelled the same road, it’s all too easy for the roads from Auschwitz to sink into oblivion. Luck, chance and freak are the stones with which every road from Auschwitz is paved. There are no other roads from Auschwitz but those of improbability.
What makes A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz unique amongst the Holocaust memoirs that I have read is that it is concerned as much with the aftermath as with what went before. As Rosenberg put it in the interview with Haaretz: ‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’:
My father survived the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. That is the skeleton of the story. However, the story I want to tell is not about Auschwitz, or about my father’s death at an early age, but about his desperate attempt to rehabilitate himself and live – about how you start your life when everything is gone. All the people you knew, all the places you grew up in. The survivors cannot cope with the memories; they have to suppress and repress them in order to live. I grew up with my father, but I did not see what was truly happening to him. To overcome what had happened, he had to turn his back on the past. When I was a child, there was no talk, no mention of the ghetto or the Holocaust or the camps, or of my grandfather and grandmother. Nothing. It was as though none of it had existed.
So Rosenberg’s story is as much about us – amongst whom those who flee genocide, war or persecution seek refuge – as it is about the survivors. As Rosenberg observes at one point, his parents’ world ‘no longer existed and the new world was none too eager to let itself be theirs.’
At his liberation, David Rosenberg weighs 80 pounds. There is little left of him; there is nothing left of the Jewish community of Lodz; few of his family survive. He is alive, but his world is gone.
The Swedish government offers to give temporary refuge to ‘some ten thousand children and invalids’ from the refugee camps of Europe. So it is that David Rosenberg finds himself on a train to Södertälje, a small town about 20 miles from Stockholm. It is there that he steps off the train into a bright new world. But his past never leaves him.
David and his sweetheart, Hala, are eventually reunited, both improbable survivors. Goran pieces together how they tried to adapt to a strange country, a foreign tongue, an unfamiliar diet and a small town unused to foreigners. (Neither concentration camps, nor Jews, figure much in the local newspaper – but Goran has sifted the archives for the late 1940s and early 1950s to find stories that reflect attitudes ranging from hostility or suspicion to incomprehension.
Unlike other refugees who quickly leave for the United States or Israel, the Rosenbergs stay in Sweden. Goran’s father, trained in his native Poland as a textile engineer, finds work welding fuel pipes in the local Scania truck factory, while his mother does piecework sewing coat linings.
What is most successful about Rosenberg’s book is the way he manages to relive his father’s life forwards, not allowing hindsight to colour the narrative, imbuing each stage of what he calls ‘the project’ – his parents’ plan to reconstruct a life of normality in Sweden – with hope. As the 1950s progress, his parents are awarded Swedish citizenship, buy their first car (a Volkswagen, ironically) but they remain strangers in a foreign land. His father is at the receiving end of anti-Semitic taunts at work and quits. He tries to make a living selling costume jewellery but cannot escape a darkness that begins to enfold him.
The shadows that haunted David Rosenberg were described by Czeslaw Milosz in On Exile as ‘a loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressive to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant.’
In 1953, the West German government decided to compensate the survivors with money (I did not know this). Goran reckons that the reparations business harms his father, and certainly his account of David’s efforts to claim reparations is jaw-dropping. Not only is he required to gather documents, testimonies and medical reports, but he must also attend an examination by a psychiatrist approved by the West German government, who must be able to submit his report in German. The only such doctor in Stockholm is a German – who decides that, from 1948 at least, the impact of his brutalisation in the camps can be stated as being 0 per cent.
The doctor’s conclusion is that, ‘without doubt, the patient is exaggerating his difficulties’.
The symptoms of psychoneurosis that the patient alleges he has can no longer necessarily be linked to possible harm inflicted in the concentration camps.
The denial of reparations increases David’s despair. Though he was unaware of the true situation as a child, Goran recalls ‘nightmares wallpapering the small apartment’ in which they lived. Eventually, his father is admitted to hospital where he is given electroshock therapy. He succeeds in drowning himself in the lake in the hospital grounds – 15 years after he boarded the train that led him away from the concentration camps, but which his mind never left.
In a final letter to his family before committing suicide, David wrote: ‘I suffer the agonies of hell and I can’t go on. I can’t live with normal people.’
Goran Rosenberg writes:
There are those who have to forget because they don’t want to remember (and therefore remember all too well), and there are those who forget because they have nothing particular to remember.
It’s impossible to read Rosenberg’s moving yet quietly understated book without contemplating the present – in which refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are washed ashore on Greek islands or huddle in squalid encampments in Calais seeking shelter and safety. The nightmares they have experienced, and the repercussions from their horrors will live on, a reminder of how the consequences of war stretch long beyond escape or ceasefire, and leave indelible marks on family life for decades.
In his interview with Haaretz, Rosenberg was asked, ‘How do you think your family story, with your father’s suicide, affected your approach to life?’ He replied:
In one meaningful way: by imbuing me with a strong consciousness of society’s fragility. I am constantly aware that human society is always in danger of disappearing or falling apart or becoming cruel, and that a serious effort must be made to maintain a tolerant, open society. Many Swedes were born with a sense of security – this year Sweden celebrates 200 years without wars. But I feel different. I do not feel secure, I feel that everything is fragile, temporary, poised on the brink.
Why such feelings of insecurity? Later in the interview Rosenberg says this:
When you write about the Holocaust, even about things that are supposedly well known, like Auschwitz, you have to shock the reader. You cannot leave him in a place where he says, ‘Yes, that happened and it really was terrible.’ He has to experience a shock, to catch his breath. He has to understand that it happened in a society which was not very different from the society that exists now, in a country that is not far from his place of residence, and was perpetrated by people who are more or less like us. And that it is not something you can ever turn away from. Our role, as a society, is to preserve this insight, as a tool, as a warning light. We are all of us, always, on the road from Auschwitz. And always will be.
What we should remember about Auschwitz, Rosenberg says, is that it was made possible by humans: ‘And these human beings are we.’
Fittingly, ‘Don’t stand by’ is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 (27 January). The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust explain:
Holocaust and subsequent genocides took place because the local populations allowed insidious persecution to take root. Whilst some actively supported or facilitated state policies of persecution, the vast majority stood by silently – at best, afraid to speak out; at worst, indifferent. Bystanders enabled the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and subsequent genocides.
The HMD website features this powerful statement from Elie Wiesel:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
In Liverpool the Anglican cathedral, from 22 – 29 January, will host ‘Don’t Stand By’, an exhibition mounted by the Merseyside Council of Christians and Jews. While at the International Slavery Museum there will be a free drop-in event
‘Dreams of peace & freedom’, a performance on 27 January at 1pm by
English Cabaret, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. A moving cycle of songs and readings will weave the words of Nuremberg prosecutor and human rights champion David Maxwell Fyfe with original musical settings. At Nuremberg, Maxwell Fyfe prosecuted for the UK, cross-examining major Nazi figures Goering and Ribbentrop and then went on to draft the European Convention on Human Rights.
The bystander conundrum is one that Goran Rosenberg worries at again and again in A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz. In one instance he reminds us of Czeslaw Milosz in the spring of 1943, then working with the underground Resistance movement in Warsaw, writing about the carousel in the city’s Krasinski Park which continued to turn amidst music and laughter as the Warsaw ghetto was liquidated. From the carousel, Rosenberg observes, the liquidation could be seen and heard: the last surviving Jews in the ghetto have begun an uprising, and German soldiers are burning house after house.
‘Nothing new there’, Rosenberg drily notes. ‘People are capable of living as if nothing’s going on even when the most atrocious things are happening around them.’
In an interview on the occasion of being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, Czeslaw Milosz spoke of how he came to write Campo dei Fiori, the poem to which Rosenberg alludes:
There are people who say that what I described was just a literary metaphor. But in fact, I passed the ghetto as I was riding the tram and saw all that horror with my own eyes. The main theme of the poem is the vulnerability and aloneness of the dying person, and for that reason the comparison with Giordano Bruno was appropriate; the death of each and every individual can be compared with this. The poem was born out of a sort of moral obligation, when you feel that you must react.
In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
baskets of olives and lemons,
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.
On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors’ shoulders.
I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.
But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.
Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s word.
Footnote: Is the implication justified that responses to today’s refugee crisis (physical and verbal racist attacks, seizing valuables, red-painted doors, forced to wear armbands, etc) are an echo of the 1930s? See this thoughtful piece by Giles Fraser in the Guardian: Wristbands and red doors for refugees: history is not repeating itself, but it is rhyming.