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 Łód´z ghetto at the end of August 1944.
The exact date of your departure is a lost fragment. “Eingelie- fert [delivered], 26. viii. 1944, Auschwitz,” is whatitsaysonahand-written list drawn up in the Ravensbrück 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 Łód´z ghetto to the selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau?
* * * *
The decision to liquidate the ghetto is announced on wall posters on August 2, 1944. The posters don’t say that the ghetto is to be liquidated, but simply that it’s to be moved elsewhere (euphemism is the SS empire’s linguistic specialty), and that five thousand people must report for onward transport every day, each of them permitted to bring with them fifteen to twenty kilos of luggage, and that family members should ensure they all go together, “to avoid family separations.” Those notified of their departure are to assemble at the central jail, situated within the ghetto fence, and will then be escorted to the station at Radogoszcz, just outside. The first transport leaves at 8 a.m. Those traveling are to be at the stated place by 7 a.m. at the latest.
Yes, that’s what it says, in Yiddish and German, on the posters signed by Chaim Rumkowski. He’s the chairman of the Jewish Council, and for the past four years he’s been running the ghetto as a slave-labor factory for the Germans, and now he’s been engaged by those same Germans to make the liquidation of the ghetto a calm and collected affair.
But no one in the ghetto is calm and collected. So many have already been transported onward and never heard from again. So many have been dragged away as if they were already dead. So many have been killed for refusing or for hesitating or for no reason at all, like flies swatted against a wall. So many recognizable clothes have turned up in the ghetto’s textile factories. So many rumors no one’s had enough imagination to believe or enough hope to shrug off.
So most people keep out of the way as long as they can, hiding in attics and cellars, trying to move from one hiding place to another, trying to convince themselves it will soon be over since the Russians have reached Warsaw, with the result that the euphemisms are exchanged for plain talk: Wer einen Angehörigen bei sich beherbergt, versteckt oder verpflegt, wird mit dem tode bestraft (Anyone giving shelter, a hiding place, or food to a relative will be punished by death). German soldiers are sent into the ghetto, blocking off street after street and surrounding house after house, ordering the officers of the ghetto’s baton-wielding Jewish police force to drag the inhabitants out of their hiding places and take them to Radogoszcz. Early one August morning—the sun is low and the shadows are long—about thirty women and children are photographed on their way through the ghetto to the railroad station. I count nine Jewish policemen and one SS man escorting them. There’s much to be said about the Jewish policemen, but the train is waiting for them, too.
No, no one in the ghetto is calm and collected, and once they get to the Radogoszcz station the euphemisms come to an abrupt end. The trains the former ghetto denizens must board are closed, lockable freight cars for the transport of cattle, the minimal openings for air sealed up with planks of wood and barbed wire. Boarding is via makeshift wooden ramps propped on makeshift wooden trestles. The passengers boarding are in their best clothes, as if for a long journey, the women in autumn coats, the girls in white socks and laced boots. August 1944 is an exceptionally hot month, but they have dressed more warmly than usual, just in case. They balance their loose bundles and their pots and pans insecurely on the steep, rickety ramps. You can see only their backs, not their faces, as they’re swallowed one by one. The cattle cars fill up. The doors are bolted.
In one respect, the photograph lies. There’s too much light in it.
You don’t see the darkness. The darkness as they enter the cars and hope is extinguished.
Within twenty days, the seventy thousand remaining inhabitants of the Łód´z ghetto have boarded the train at Radogoszcz. A hundred people in each cattle car equals seven hundred car loads, making thirty-five carloads per day. Die Deutsche Reichsbahn has a severe shortage of freight cars in August 1944, and the more people you can squash into every car, the fewer cars you need. If everyone’s packed in tightly, standing, you can get over 150 people into each car. The closed cattle cars of the German national railroad have a floor area of twenty-seven square meters, about 290 square feet. The German railroad authorities compile lists of the exact number of cars and trains they have to run between Łód´z and Auschwitz and take payment accordingly, but I have no need to know the exact number, not in your transport nor in any of the others.
On August 28, Chaim Rumkowski boards the train at Radogoszcz without the slightest euphemism to support him.
On August 29, the last train departs from Łód´z.
In the language that delivers human beings, the ghetto is thereby liquidated.
All that is left to clear away are the traces of those who have been dispatched for delivery.
The piles of abandoned bundles, the stench of starvation and death, the ruins of hope and of the will to live.
* * * *
So I piece fragments together. If you’re registered as delivered to Auschwitz on August 26, you must have boarded the train at Radogoszcz on August 25 at the latest, possibly a day or two earlier. It’s only just over two hundred kilometers to Auschwitz, but in the Europe of human transports the railroad tracks are overused and the trains overloaded. Sometimes the trains grind to a halt for hours or even days. Some passengers survive the journey, others do not. Some remain human beings, others do not. So much has already been said about those days and nights in the cattle cars to Auschwitz. And so little. The Germans have no intention of letting anyone survive to say anything, and those who survive don’t know what to say to be believed.
You’ve said nothing, and I have nothing to add.
The only thing I can say with some degree of certainty, thanks to the SS list at Ravensbrück, is that you board a train at Radogoszcz that delivers you to Auschwitz on August 26, 1944. But I don’t know if you’re registered as delivered the same day you get off the train onto the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau or not until a few days later. After all, the vast majority of those who get off the train from the Łód´z ghetto are never registered because they’re immediately sorted to one side (the left) to be murdered in the gas chambers and incinerated in the crematoriums, all traces of them expunged. The few who are not to be murdered just yet but are to be used as slave labor first have to be sorted again, assigned numbers, and registered as delivered. This must surely take time, possibly several days. If that’s the case, then another fragment can be slotted in, a registration card from a later stop on the journey, which says that you’re in the ghetto in Łód´z until August 20, 1944, and in KL Auschwitz from August 21, 1944. That means you’re in KL Auschwitz for a number of days without being delivered. Assuming it’s necessary to make all the fragments fit together.
But that isn’t necessary at all. In this context it makes absolutely no difference on precisely which day you reach Auschwitz. Your journey has no timetable and no direction. You have no exact dates behind you and no exact dates ahead of you. On your journey, exact dates have no function.
It’s me they have a function for. I’m the one who needs them. I’m the one who needs every fragment that can possibly be procured, so I don’t lose sight of you. A fragment that can’t be erased, edited, denied, explained away, destroyed. A date. A list. A registration card. A photograph. The exact names and numbers of the days when your world is liquidated.
Because that’s what’s happening. These are the days when your world is liquidated. When the places and people in whose care you made the world your own are wiped from the face of the earth, blotted out of history, and expunged from memory. The last days in the ghetto are the last days when it’s still possible to experience your world by smelling its scents, hearing its voices, touching it, missing it, fantasizing about it. The ghetto’s a doomed world, a world of gradual degradation and destruction, a world of ever more unrealistic hopes, kept alive by increasingly implausible euphemisms, but it’s a world that still has a past and a future. Just beyond the deadly fences of the ghetto, basically within walking distance, are the house at 36 Piłsudskiego where you grew up, the school you went to, and the places where your cheeks flushed, your eyes glittered, and your dreams were woven. The town’s no longer called Łód´z but Litzmannstadt, and the streets have been given German names instead of Polish ones; the houses and apartments where two hundred thousand Jews recently lived have now been taken over by Germans, and little by little all links to the past are being severed, and all links to humanity. So yes, your world is about to be wiped out, and day by day the ghetto is dying, but in apartment 6 at 18 Franciszkan´ska, near the corner of Brzezin´ska (which the Germans have renamed Sulzfelderstrasse), there are still some of the people who populated that world, and some of the objects that furnished it (nothing valuable, the Germans have stolen all that, piece by piece, but still), and maybe a boxful of the links that consolidated it, and no doubt somewhere the photographs that immortalized it. Still living there are your father Gershon, your mother Hadassah, and your youngest brother Salek, and a short distance away, at 78 Lutomierska (Hamburgerstrasse), in apartment 29, your big brother Natek and his young wife Andzia, and in number 26 at the same address Andzia’s father Majlech and mother Cywia. And somewhere out there, most recently heard of in Warsaw, your eldest brother Marek, who is also called Mayer. And with the Staw family in apartment number 3 at 18 Franciszkan´ska (Franzstrasse, the Germans have decreed), a very pretty girl two years younger than you called Halina or Hala, but more properly Chaja, and more affectionately Halus´ or Halinka, and on whom you have a teenage crush, and who’s sharing the apartment’s single room with her father Jakob and her mother Rachel and her big sisters Bluma, Bronka, and Sima. In the kitchen there’s yet another family. In the kitchen of apartment 5, on the third floor, lives Hala’s eldest sister Dorka with her husband Jeremiah and their son Obadja, born on April 2, 1939, and still a baby when the ghetto is closed to the outside world on April 30, 1940.
Of course, your world can look like this only during the first days of the ghetto, when the two hundred thousand Jews of Łód´z have just been forced behind the barbed wire, into das Wohngebiet der Juden in Litzmannstadt, and when nearly all of them are still alive and the transports haven’t started yet and the dawn streets aren’t lined with the previous night’s bodies, with people who starved to death or died of typhus or killed themselves, and when the whole thing still seems too unreal to be true. Yes, this is what your world looks like when its root fibers are still attached to living people and memories and it’s still possible to draw a family tree with an ever finer tracery of branches to ever more distant names, places, and stories, and no one yet knows that whole family trees can be chopped down and whole worlds liquidated.
On July 25, 1943, your father Gershon dies in apartment number 6. On July 26, 1943, Jeremiah, Obadja’s father, jumps from the window of apartment number 5 on the third floor and succeeds, not without difficulty, in killing himself. On November 10, 1943, your youngest brother Salek dies in apartment number 6.
I also have their birth dates. Gershon is fifty-six when he dies, Jeremiah forty-two, Salek nineteen. I also have the exact dates on which Rosenberg after Rosenberg is dispatched from the ghetto for onward transport. Rosenberg’s a common name in the ghetto, where it’s spelled with a z instead of an s.
“Ausg. 10.3.42 Tr. 35” is written after the name of the porter Idel Rozenberg, who lives in apartment number 25 at 51 Sulz- felderstrasse (Brzezin´ska) and was born on 1.1.1897. Ausg. means ausgeliefert, dispatched for delivery, and Transport 35, like all the other transports of 1942, goes to the gas vans, the mobile gas chambers in Chełmno.
The list doesn’t include this detail, but I know it’s so.
On March 15, 1942, weaver Majer Hersz Rozenberg, who lives in apartment number 3 at 4 Kranichweg (Z˙urawia), is dispatched on Transport 31.
On March 25, 1942, schoolboy Mordela Rozenberg, who lives in apartment 10 at 1 Fischstrasse (Rybna), is dispatched on Transport 36.
On September 1 and 2, 1942, the ghetto’s hospitals are emptied and the patients dumped into military trucks. Some are dumped out of the windows. Some try to run away.
Between September 5 and 12, an Allgemeine Gehsperre or general curfew is proclaimed: everyone is ordered to stay at home and no one is permitted to have guests and one block of apartments after another is forced to give up the old, the sick, and the children. Within two weeks, sixteen thousand people are dispatched from the ghetto, never to be heard from again.
On September 4, 1942, Chaim Rumkowski makes a speech. I hope you don’t hear it.
I hope nobody at 18 Franciszkan´ska hears it.
I don’t know what anyone can hope for after hearing it.
But at the same time, I want everyone to know what Chaim Rumkowski said in his speech of September 4, 1942. So that everyone will know what sort of place it is that you’re leaving behind when you board the train to Auschwitz in August 1944 and your world is liquidated.
Or is it already liquidated now?
It’s a quarter to five in the afternoon and the sunshine is glaring and the day is still hot and loudspeakers have been set up in the square outside the fire station at 13 Lutomierska Street, and Chaim Rumkowski makes a biblical speech, without euphemisms. Or perhaps a speech with biblical euphemisms.
At any rate, a speech that cannot be misunderstood.
Or a speech that must be misunderstood if your world is not to collapse at once under the weight of its monumental futility and be liquidated on the spot.
“Fathers and mothers, give me your children!” says Chaim Rumkowski.
His white hair is tousled, his movements slow, his voice broken, but his words cannot be misunderstood, so they must be misunderstood.
He has received an order from the Germans to dispatch all the underage children of the ghetto.
And he is also to dispatch the old and the sick. At least 20,000 Jews are to be dispatched.
He has come to inform the ghetto that he has decided to give the Germans what they demand. To “bring the sacrifice to the altar in his own arms.” To “cut off the limbs to save the body,” with his own hands.
Yes, those are the words he uses.
And says that if he doesn’t offer up the sacrifice, the Germans will destroy them all.
But that if he does, some people will be saved. What is there to misunderstand?
Chaim Rumkowski doesn’t want to be misunderstood. Not this time. This is what he says:
I come to you like a bandit to take from you that which you hold most dear. I have tried by every means to have this order revoked, and when that proved impossible, to have it made less harsh. Just yesterday, I requested a list of all nine-year-olds. I wanted to try to at least save that year group, the nine-to-ten-year-olds. But I could secure no such concession. The only thing I successfully achieved was to save those aged ten and above. Let that be a consolation in our deep sorrow. There are in the ghetto many patients who can only be expected to live for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. I do not know if this is a diabolical idea or not, but I have to say it: Give me the sick. We can save the well in their place. I know how dear the sick are to each family, and especially for Jews, but when cruel demands are made, one has to weigh and calculate: who ought to be, can be, and may be saved? And common sense tells us that those who are to be saved must be those who can be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who in no circumstances can be saved. . . . Bear in mind that we live in the ghetto. We are subject to such great restrictions that we do not have enough for the well, let alone the sick. We give them our meager rations of sugar, our little piece of meat. And what is the result? Not enough to cure the sick, but enough to make ourselves sick. Naturally sacrifices of this kind are the most beautiful, the most noble. But there are times when choices have to be made: sacrifice those among the sick who have the least chance of getting well, and who can also make others ill, or save the well. I could not devote very long to thinking this over; I had to decide in favor of the well. In that spirit, I have issued instructions to the doctors: they have the task of delivering up all incurable patients, so that the well, those who want to live and can live, may be saved in their place. I understand you, mothers, I see the tears in your eyes; I feel what you feel in your hearts, you fathers who are obliged to go to your work even on the morning after your children have been taken from you, your darling little ones whom you were playing with only yesterday. All this I know and feel. Since four o’clock yesterday, when the order was first conveyed to me, I have been prostrate; I share your pain, I suffer your anguish, and I do not know how I shall survive this—where I shall find the strength to do it. I must let you into a secret: they demanded 24,000 sacrifices, 3,000 a day for eight days. I was able to reduce that to 20,000, but only on condition that all children under ten be included. Children of ten and older are safe. Since the children and old people together amount to only 13,000 souls, the gap must be filled with the sick.
I can hardly speak, I am exhausted, and will speak only of what I ask of you: you must help me carry through this Aktion. . . . A broken Jew stands before you. Do not envy me. This is the hardest order I have ever faced. I extend my broken, trembling hands to you and implore you: give me the sacrifices! So we can avert the need for even more sacrifices, and a population of 100,000 Jews can be saved! This is what they have promised me: that if we hand over the sacrifices ourselves, all will remain calm.
What more is there to say? Only a misunderstanding can maintain the world in which such a speech can be made. Chaim Rumkowski misunderstands nothing. The children, the sick, and the old are to be delivered up in order to be killed. This you must all understand. It cannot be misunderstood.
Nor can it be understood. The world in which something like this can be understood is a world no one in your world can imagine. Between your world and the world where parents are exhorted to sacrifice their children, children their parents, and the healthy the sick, there is a chasm that reason cannot bridge. Only misunderstanding and lack of imagination—this is how
I see it—can keep your world together after September 1942.
From A BRIEF STOP ON THE ROAD FROM AUSCHWITZ. Used with permission of Other Press. Copyright © 2017 by Göran Rosenberg.