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A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz – Goran Rosenberg

April 19, 2016

ABSONTRFAGöran Rosenberg is the son of two Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz and found their way to Sweden after the war to start a new life. Like other Holocaust survivors, they were supposedly the lucky ones, with a future ahead of them, unlike the vast swathes of friends and relatives who had been decimated by Nazi persecution. But the end of the war threw up a whole new set of challenges. Alongside the physical and mental consequences of what they had been through in the war years, they faced the burden of survival and the drive to make the most of the gift of life in a foreign land  – to try and make some point of the fact that they  had survived.

The standard of living was far higher in Sweden than in the Rosenbergs’ native Poland, but as emigrants they were outsiders and consequently started out at the bottom. Göran’s father worked in a truck factory near the family’s new home, but hoped to do better in time. Each attempt to forge a new path failed, partly due to a lack of money or contacts, or the fact that the Swedes seemed to have no interest in seeing emigrants thrive.

The turning point is 1953, when the German government passes a law to compensate Holocaust survivors. Göran’s father is assessed by a German doctor charged with keeping the number of victims eligible for compensation to a minimum. As a result, he is judged insufficiently damaged to receive any money. This judgement is like a heavy torpedo, which destroys the fragile foundations of his father’s survival, leading to a tragic downward spiral of psychiatric care and ultimately suicide.

The book tells this story through the prism of a son retracing his father’s steps through a time he never talked about. Rosenberg scours the archives for exact figures and dates, and pores over family correspondence to reconstruct his parents’ world before it was liquidated, and to recreate in vivid detail the wartime world in which they were drafted into slave labour while millions around them were sent straight to their deaths.

The catalyst for this project is the discovery of a cache of letters – joyful and despairing, yet silent “about the unbearable” – that passed between his parents in those dark years.

In understated prose Rosenberg also recalls his childhood, where the shadows of the Holocaust were never far away. Though his parents chose to give him a Swedish name so he would blend in, Göran nonetheless knew his family was different, and resented this difference. He recalls pretending not to hear when his parents talked to him in their mother tongue, because he wanted to be like everyone else. He sensed, too, that being Jewish was not something to make a show of. Rosenberg evidently wishes that he had shown more understanding of his parents’ circumstances, but as a child he knew no better.

The author’s decision to trace every aspect of his father’s life in an effort to understand him better and to recognize not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also the horrors of survival in a world that seems to have forgotten them gives his memoir a sharp focus, unlike so many other stories which concentrate more on the Holocaust than on the “recovery.” The book unspools in a circular fashion which follows themes and patterns, instead of a chronological timeline, and Goran’s own memories from about the age of three until the present provide a perspective on his father which, in its innocence, becomes particularly moving.

Quotations:

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?

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.

“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.”

“You’re part of a group of 350 Jewish men who were recently on their way from the ghetto in Lodz to the gas chambers and crematoriums in Auschwitz, and who by some blind fate have been nudged onto a route leading to a freight depot platform in the heart of Germany.”

” Dates are for us, for the researcher; they are like anchors, something concrete to hold on to in our effort to understand; they also counteract the “precise figures and arbitrary abbreviations [which] are the crowbars of Nazi euphemism”

“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. But I soon notice that the exact numbers and dates merely reconstruct the widening gulf between what’s happening around you and what can be understood.”

“… those of you who have survived have no reason to doubt that the world afterward is no longer the same as the world before. It’s impossible to think anything else. It’s impossible to think you’ve all survived in order for the world to forget what it’s just been through and to go on as if nothing has happened. There must be some point to the fact that you’ve survived, since the main point of the event you’ve survived was that none of you were supposed to survive… … Why me and not the others? Naturally it’s also an unbearable thought, which has to be pushed aside sooner or later if surviving is to turn into living. So I think it’s initially pushed aside by the assurance that you haven’t survived for yourselves but for others, too; that you’re the traces that must not be eradicated, and that you therefore owe a particular duty to the life you’ve been granted… … Like Lot’s wife, people in your situation can go on living only if they don’t turn around and look back, because like Lot’s wife, you risk being turned to stone by the sight. Nor, however, can you go on living if nobody sees and understands what it is you’ve survived and why it is you’re still alive, in spite of everything. I think the step from surviving to living demands this apparently paradoxical combination of individual repression and collective remembrance. You can look forward only if the world looks backward and remembers where you come from, and sees the paths you pursue, and understands why you’re still living.”

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.

It’s me [these facts] have a function for. I’m the one who needs them. I’m the one who needs every fragment that can possibly be procured. … 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 [his father’s] world is liquated.

“Everyone knows, but no one understands”

“The more the horizon closes in, and more important the leap becomes, and the longer that leap is postponed, the more the horizon closes in.”

“I think the step from surviving to living demands [the] apparently paradoxical combination of individual repression and collective remembrance. You can look forward only if the world looks back.”

“This [town] is the Place. This is where my world assumes its first colors,”

“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, which is a world the Project will help put behind you.”

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.

his parents’ world “no longer existed and the new world was none too eager to let itself be theirs.”

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.

“What he thinks about his future on that August evening in 1947 is mere speculation on my part […] he has the right to carry on with his life without my prematurely burdening him with what’s going to happen to the rest of it[…]I shall take his days as they come, and where I can’t see how they come to him, I’ll let them come to me.”

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.

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.

“Anyone who knows at which points along your road from Auschwitz there ought to be a memorial plaque will most likely find one, and perhaps even a small monument if you search for it, and occasionally even a memorial museum. You have to hand it to the Germans, even in commemorating repulsive acts they’re conscientious.”

“precise figures and arbitrary abbreviations are the crowbars of Nazi euphemism”

“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.”

The symptoms of psychoneurosis that the patient alleges he has can no longer necessarily be linked to possible harm inflicted in the concentration camps.”

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.

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