Halina Birenbaum:

Echoes after the Camp

Published in "Pro Memoria" No. 8 (June 1998) by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

He finds "Redemption" between the electrified fences

The specter of the camps is still alive. A black shadow, and not only in the form of memories. Something still deeper, infiltrated into the bloodstream, into the soul. It has worked for good and for evil during all these postwar years, on reactions, on the community, on posterity. Pain, tears, longings never wept out. Involuntary comparisons: then-today, the search for explanations, mental returns to the places of torment, the situations. Insane dreams, bizarre associations. The superimposition of old situations on the present ones. In the overcrowded wagon of the German train in which I return to Berlin from the International Book Fair in Leipzig, suddenly the heaps of clothing in "Canada" loom before my eyes, and wild thoughts of the people, like us here, heading into the station, where the clothes are stripped from them, all adornment, jewelry, and they are killed, burnt to death. Despite my struggles I cannot wrench this from my brain. I went from Birkenau to "Canada" to sort these things, I carried bundles of clothing to wagons for sending to Germany, breathing the smell of life and the smoke of death. The world's end... The noise in my head deafens me in this universal silence, mine and the passengers all around. The German acquaintances with me give me a friendly smile. I return them a smile of my postwar self. How many characters are there in me - my own and those absorbed back then? How many metamorphoses and echoes?

Unfounded feelings of terror, the compulsion to struggle with whatever real or suspected danger. The anxious lookout for the next liberations in every more difficult situation, the anticipation of something better, which is still to come by some unexpected miracle - to reach whatever the next finale is... Fear of sudden separation, insult, abandonment, of losing someone close, and belittling material losses so long as they do not threaten life. I don't save bread. I don't throw out stale bread only because I can feed the animals or birds with it. I don't hoard food. But I am afraid of doctors, the possibility of the word "end" in their diagnosis, like... during the selection before the verdict... to the left! Sudden stress or relief. And after all, peace prevails (still broken, however by wars, terrorist explosions), the hundreds of matters of all calibres of a normally running life: home family, plans, wishes.

Love and faith in life heal over the wounds, bring strength so that one can bloom again, build, form new friendships, intimacies, family. They are stronger than despair, like nature itself is, after all. And the property burned or taken away? This is easier to deal with, to get other things and enjoy them no less. After that most horrible of horrors every achievement brings satisfaction and joy, is a victory over destruction and death. It seems to me that usually I feel that joy more strongly than other people do. But sadness as well. It is constantly there inside, as if it were making sure that I do not forget the sufferings of the camp, and that they really did happen in this world of ours! A friend from Rzeszow noticed during our first meeting that I, even when I smile, have sadness in my eyes... Back then it settled at the bottom of my soul and it still surfaces without my knowing. But it does not compel me to resignation. It allows me to better understand, to think and feel more deeply, to find the way out in action, in communicating something.

Revitalizing energies transform it all into a source of creativity. Our sons draw on it as well. Unfortunately they have also acquired a large measure of that fear and other sensitivities. They never knew their grandparents, their relatives; they knew of them only from my frightening stories, which began from the first time they saw the Auschwitz tattoo and the question, "What did you draw on your arm?" They soon learned that I had been dragged with my mother in a huge mass of people from the ghetto to the lavatory in a Nazi camp, where at a certain moment I turned around - and Mother was no longer there anymore! From then on, even when I went to take out the garbage they called after me, "Mother, where are you going!" Should I not have told them? Let my mother, father, brother die a second death, not to scare the children? To this day no few "specialists" accuse me of implanting the worst poison in the children with this story - Auschwitz death! (They wrote that in some reviews of the Israeli film Because of That War, in which I appeared with one of my sons.) When for the first time I told about my experiences of Shoah in school, the shocked and surprised teachers asked me how I could so openly speak of it - after all it could damage the children, they would not be able to sleep at night, they would get complexes!

It would never have crossed my mind that the memory of lost dear ones could harm anyone, but I was ashamed, I felt guilty and very chastened. But I cannot cross out the events of the past, they and their effects are entwined in my life in various ways whether somebody likes it or not. "Back then there were so many nights I didn't sleep," I answered, "so it won't do any great harm to anyone if he doesn't sleep that one night thinking over our old history."

The worst is when the holidays approach. Covered with a white tablecloth, set with the traditional meals, the table reminds me so painfully of my father in his holiday attire, reciting the prayers of thanksgiving, of my mother lighting the candles and murmuring her blessing over them, her face covered by her hands. The picture of home - long ago in Warsaw on Nowiniarska Street... Even the breeze bearing the smells of autumn brings back that holiday, intensifies the longing. I swallow tears, I get nervous, I have an outburst about any little thing. At this time the children usually ask who is coming to us for the holiday, or who we are going to visit, because their friends are going to an aunt, to a grandmother, or else their uncles, aunts and cousins are coming to them - and how about us?

Once I shouted terribly at my son that he should never ask such questions ever again and that he should once and for all understand that we were never going anywhere and no one was ever coming to us, because besides ourselves we had nobody - and I broke down in tears. The child was helplessly silent. At that moment I was unable to realize how I was behaving. That constantly repeating question was like a knife in my heart. Later we began to make the holidays together with friends whose histories were similar to ours. They invited us over, and we invited them. At the table it became festive, like in a family, but not without the hidden shadow of those memories, which we also shared. And not without the involuntary fear that at any moment this peace and happiness could vanish or unexpectedly be taken away... Because back then, every nightmare was the most normal thing in the world, and no evil was yet the worst - the evil was simply bottomless! But so was the power of human good in this hell, which rescued the next moments of life, the faith in it and the sense of struggling for it. To this day I carry with me the conviction that one can come out of any situation intact, even the worst, since it was possible to survive despite it all and remain a human being still.

Our children also have this awareness. After regaining freedom it allowed me to trust fate again, to collect the strength to start a new life far from my roots, from everything and everyone once so close and dear, gone without leaving a trace except me myself. In another country, another climate, language, landscape, among other people. Loneliness, orphanhood, and that longing - my post-camp, post-Auschwitz, aged youth in which I created that new life, family, home. My victory, human existence after that hell. Simple proof that hope is not an illusion after all. But I must have gone intothe camp with something, since I could imagine then and could believe that the world would be beautiful as sas the Nazis lost the war and this diabolical madness ended.

I did not become I was and am in the Warsaw ghetto or the camp, although I did in fact grow up from a ten-year-old to a fifteen-year-old there, was "brought up" and learned what a person really needs in order to live in that smothering, packed-to-fainting human mass, condemned to a thousand kinds of death. Neither the Nazi monsters nor the reality into which they threw us shaped my personality or behavior, neither then nor later. Some people have said so, often in order to excuse their past and present sins. It is all the fault, they maintain to this day, of the Nazis, the terror, the conditions.

In the camp, staggered as we were by the complete shattering of the notions and human values inculcated from generations, not all became uniformly and necessarily evil "because otherwise it wasn't possible to survive..." (I have heard it more than once: "Who knows what you did there to live when so many died!") Externally we no longer resembled human figures - neither men nor women, elders or children. It was barely possible to recognize us in that altered, gray, emaciated, maltreated and stripped-of-everything mass of captives. But not everyone left there (if one left at all) with the same load of experiences, burdens and later reflections or reactions. Each one had her own Majdanek or Auschwitz, with different repercussions on later life. I do not think that everyone could be put together into a uniform category, to be labeled as if with a stamp, with the collective name of the particular ordeals or post-camp traumas. But labeling is what has been adopted. Our children are also taken under the common denominator Dor Hahemsheh ("Successive Generation"), that is, the progeny of Shoah survivors. Probably the easiest thing is to shut people inside a generalizing framework, to pick out common features and reactions. And again that "You, you who are different!" In this way people can be divided up ad infinitum for any number of purposes or interests. Put into all kinds of groups: those who experienced the Holocaust and those who avoided it far away or were born later; those who were penned in cattle cars to the concentration camps and those who were saved by virtuous people in their homes, in monasteries or among the partisans in the forests.

A few years ago the Children of the Holocaust international association was formed. I was not accepted because I unlike others I had not run from death, I had let myself be taken to the death camp... Maybe it is better that they did not admit me. I prefer not to belong to specific groups, and to be always just with myself to other people.

So it all has to be constantly fought. Not infrequently to be ashamed of one's memory, to feel guilty of that terrifying past, and to prove that one is not weaker, worse, less bold or capable. At least far from the places through which the ravages of the Holocaust passed, we fall under the wholesale, not necessarily laudable term "Survivors of Shoah"... and that is supposed to say it all: our origins, status, character. A uniform mass of people without our own faces, neither then nor now.

And the same thing happens in reference to books treating those experiences, especially those written by the heroes of those ordeals: "Oh, another book on Shoah! That's not literature! The strength of these books lies only in the very atrociousness of the things the author experienced and witnessed. Why even write so much about a subject so familiar and known? How can a person go on living later after reading about such things?"

How many times has it been said to me with pity that I should forget, with surprise that I didn't "come out of it," didn't free myself, was stuck obsessively in the past - and that is bad, unhealthy, damaging!

The daughter of an acquaintance made her mother cover the arm with the Auschwitz tattoo when her girlfriends from school came over. Frania had lived through the indescribable torment of the Lodz ghetto, desperate escapes and concentration camps. She had lost her husband, her seven-year old son - almost all of her large family. After the liberation she built herself a new family in Tel Aviv. She asked me to write down what had happened to her -a legacy for her daughter, who had gotten married and immigrated to the United States. But most of those who survived Shoah kept quiet about their past, even to their own children. They wanted to prove to themselves and their community that they were no different from other people. No one wanted to listen anyway, and the children, sensing the general attitude, shielded themselves from that "shame" of the parents. (Our older son changed his last name to a Hebrew - Israeli - one when he was fifteen years old. Now he regrets it...) And we had so wished to survive back then, if only to tell everything!

The suppressed, unspoken pain cast an even larger shadow on the family members, weighing them down with the secrecy and the incomprehensible being different. Their children always showed me their gratitude for agreeing to return to those events, for giving them, through my story, the possibility to learn what their parents or grandparents had been through. Years later they bitterly regretted their silence. A hail of belated memories fell, just this side of the grave.

From the very beginning I chose another way, true to myself but often clashing with a community prone to influences, fashions or the prevailing atmosphere. I was not ashamed of having been in the camps, of who I had been there or of what I had brought from there. Years later a lot of them followed my example.

Every person carries all kinds of traumas or complexes inside from different periods of life, from some tragedies, illnesses or mistakes. There are people with similar fates, characters, reactions. Orphans, unwanted children, people disabled in so I many different ways, and psychologists or other scientists can put them into statistical groups under the same name, like for example of mine/ours: Holocaust Survivor. They stamped me, or gave me a peculiar, eternal certificate... If I distinguish myself for something bad or outstanding they will say of me above all that it's "that Shoah survivor," and only later the rest of it. One of those whom the Nazis threw into mass graves without a name, without a. mound, without a trace.

I am bitter, vulnerable to more traumas after those from the camp, even if nothing can be compared to them. They are an eternal example, a reminder! All this has not stopped me from taking on all sorts of troubles at different times of life. Right after the war I undertook the dangerous, very arduous journey by illegal means to then - Palestine, and there, without the minimum conditions I started a family, a home, I bore and raised two sons to be sensitive and creative people. From their earliest years I told them of my past in Shoah, of my lost family, boyfriends, girlfriends.

More than once they heard their mother scream because I dreamed that the Germans are again driving up to our home in a truck, are pounding on the door, and I am feverishly looking for some hideout in the attic to hide there with the children.

Or that I am standing in the yard in front of the camp lavatory during a selection and the SS-man's finger points me peremptorily to the left, to the gas, and there is no chance of escape, rescue, and I want to live so much!!! My husband awakens me soaked in sweat and returns me to reality. The children, dazed, return to bed. But the stone lies upon my heart longer, preys upon me, I am afraid to fall asleep lest the nightmare comes upon me again.

Again, when I take a walk with the child in the buggy under the sun and the blue Israeli sky, a plane flying over us puts such dread into my soul that against my will I lean over to protect the child from the bomb. I look around for the air-raid shelter and now nothing makes me happy, not the sky, not the sun. I forget for a moment that this is not September 1939 in Warsaw and not a German plane. And after a while I lauat myself, I look at the pretty store displays and dream of the possibility of buying a stylish dress,shoes, a handbag... The present reality and that oone, intensely close, fresh. It lives together with me, inside me.

My new friends and acquaintances after the war are mainly older people. I was drawn to them, seeking my mother, my parents murdered in Treblinka and Majdanek when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I never saw them old, sick - dead. They were torn from me suddenly and rushed off to their deaths. Instantly and irrevocably! To this day I am not reconciled, I cannot accommodate that shock and pain - I am still looking for family ties... I asking in my heart, do they see me somewhere beyond the world as a grown woman, the mother of her own children, grandchildren, whom they never knew?

I have learned from these older acquaintances to cook, to bake, to be a homemaker - like Mother was long ago. She did not manage to pass on to me her skills at homemaking, caring for a child. I looked in my memory for those hints, those tastes, and I have imagined to myself the advice or answers that she could have given me for the problems that have cropped up. In my thoughts I have shared with her my little or sometimes bigger achievements. Many times I have dreamt of being able to cuddle in her warm, safe arms and cry away all this overflowing pain of mine once and for all. What kind of mother could I have been, in the face of it? How many were the mistakes I had to make?

Many of the camp experiences have settled inside me forever, but probably not only in a bad sense. I can more strongly feel for the lot of other people, quickly recognize and oppose distortion and injustice. The instincts and intuitions honed in the camp help me particularly in life.

I have no hatred in me, I cannot take vengeance, because I know the taste of suffering and with it right away. The sight of a hungry, abandoned dog or a cat brings me an image of myself from back then. Helplessness, futile calling for help, for life! And suddenly darkness, depression. Fortunately today I am not helpless in most circumstances. I can help, feed, make someone happy, and sometimes heal a creature, following the upturn in the course of the illness with satisfaction. I am always the gladdest when it is a victory over death! Because there it raged omnipotent. But a miracle is possible, evil is not invincible. Since I endured and proved... hope.

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Last Updated September 26th, 2003


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