Over fifty years ago I took a course on the Holocaust, one of the very first of its kind in the country. Being a year-long and only one of three courses that one took per semester, it was highly intensive. The first semester dealt with the history and cultures of the peoples involved—namely, Germans and Jews.
Then the actual destruction process was looked at in all of its grisly detail.
As we learned from Raul Hilberg’s magnificent—and initially largely ignored book—The Destruction of European Jewry, the sequence and manifestation of the destruction process was a historically known process: demonize, segregate, and murder. This is to say Jews had been demonized already for millennia—they had been segregated either in Jewish quarters or ghettos for hundreds of years, and, finally, they had been butchered and killed either with the sword or burning. This had occurred often at the hands of their off-spring religions, Christianity and Islam. The Oedipal or Freudian implications are clear. What the Nazis injected into the mix was the notion of race or, to be exact, being an inferior race—a concept that was an offshoot of eugenics, a rather fashionable ideology of the intelligentsia of the early part of the 20th century—an administrative state apparatus capable of tackling such an immense project and an industrial aged mechanization process of killing people—first machine guns, then gas vans, and finally, gassing rooms stationed next to crematoria.
You will notice that I have been somewhat clinical here in my description. This is necessitated for anyone studying this subject. One cannot survive in the field if a certain emotional distance isn’t established. Empaths should not sign up for this kind of work.
However, what of those who lived through it?
It is simply not possible for them to close off their experiences, no matter how hard they try. Immediately after the war, survivors’ stories were not welcomed. After all, the war was over, so shouldn’t they just get on with their lives? This was certainly so in America, which had suffered no physical destruction in the homeland. The task in Western Europe was to rebuild and put the past behind and to help in the fight against communism. For Jews who found their way to Israel—then called Palestine—the goal was to establish a new existence in the old homeland. There was no time to bemoan the past. The problem, of course, is that past experiences don’t disappear. And those experiences have demanded to be heard in the writings by survivors. There were numerous early manifestations in novels, journals, and even poetry. The important writers early on were Elie Wiesel, Andre Schwarz-Bart, and Anne Frank—among others. Eventually, from the 1970s onward, many survivors’ memoirs were written. They are often highly descriptive, as accurate as they can be given the large interval between the occurrences themselves, and their being written down. They are also often unedited, linguistically challenged, and, finally, unliterary. A recent work has been published that has none of these faults, which is to say it is descriptive in such a highly literary way that it has a huge effect.
Most of our memoirs are written by survivors. The Last Consolation Vanished is written by one of a group of people from whom we have rarely heard, Zalmen Gradowski—a Sonderkommando at Aushwitz. He was one of the numerous Jews who were forced to lead his brethren into the gas chambers, to remove their dead bodies and belongings after they were gassed, and then transport them to the crematoria where their bodies were burned—leaving no trace of them, except for the black smoke that rose from the crematoria. He wrote of his experiences—and those of his people—in manuscripts written in Yiddish, which were buried next to the crematoria and later found when the area was excavated after the war.
The book is composed of two manuscripts and a letter. The first manuscript describes the process of being rounded up and the train ride to the death camps in cattle cars without windows, ventilation, or bathrooms. These are the methodically planned train rides that go through station after station, that move from life to death. Darkness is described as never before, and snow that lies on the ground at stations where the train stopped can’t be accessed to quench the terrible thirst and hunger. Upon arrival at the death camps, they encounter people who have “no expression on their faces.” New arrivals are concerned about their families, hoping they will be reunited with them after having been separated into groups of men and women upon arriving. They are informed that most have already been gassed and burned. For those who survive the first selection, cold, six to a bunk, and hunger are the words and phrases that capture the first night.
The letter describes the ashes, endless in amount, the only remains of millions of corpses, and the Nazis desperate attempt at the end of the war to bulldoze them under. Gradowski asks the reader to search and search, to find his and others’ recorded messages. “Here we buried many teeth. We, the workers of the commando, deliberately spread these over the entire area as much as we possibly could, so the world could find tangible traces of the millions of murdered people.”
The second manuscript is much lengthier and divided into numerous sections: The Separation recounts the division of the sonderkommando group—one group to stay alive and the other to be sent to the gas chambers. It humanizes this band of despised brothers. The other describes in anguished detail the demise of those in the Czech transport— from separation of families, to their undressing, to going into the gas chambers, to their being burnt in the crematoria. “Tell us, brother, how long does this death last? Is it hard, or does it come easily?” But they go down to the chambers singing: The International, the Czech national anthem, Hatikva, and the Partisan song!
“There dark above, the skies and the glittering stars are veiled, and darkened grows their shine. A black cloud like a mourning coat now moves toward the moon on high… There above, from the deep blackness there, are heard the cries of millions, sobbing and groaning, voices of the murdered children, millions of innocents, burned to death on earth. We will pursue you forever. Your light will not shine down upon this earthly world, not until we here above, can have an answer for our blood.”
Gradowski, at the beginning of both notebooks, asks that his family be remembered. Thus both start with:
Dedicated to my family, burned in Kirenau-Auschwitz
My wife — Sonya
My mother— Sarah
My sister— Esther-Rokhl
My sister— Luba
My brother-in-law Wolf
This is a book that you don’t want to read. But this is a book that you must read to understand the evil of which mankind is capable. It is particularly appropriate for this time, as we know that evil will always exist in the world, and that it must be combated by those committed to Goodness.
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