January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration camp was liberated on January 27, 1945. The United Nations General Assembly in 2005 designated this as a day of remembrance for the six millions Jews and eleven milllon other innocent victims of the Nazis.
Since 2016 this has day has been observed on The Reading Life.
This year I am sharing with you six short stories set in the Holocaust, four by Holocaust survivors. Several of the stories can be read or heard online. Where I can, I have included links.
I am breaking this up into two posts
“This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” - A Short Story by Tadeusz Borowski
You may read the story here.
Tadeusz Borowski was born 1922 in Zhytonyr, Ukraine, died 1951 in Warsaw, Poland. He was arrested by the Gestapo in February of 1943, he was not Jewish, as a political prisoner. His girl friend had recently been arrested and when he went to find her, he was arrested also. His recently published collection of poetry was labeled as subversive. He was ultimately sent to Auschwitz as a slave labourer. Non-Jewish prisoners were often treated better than Jews and Borowski was made a “Kapo”, an inmate with authority over others. He was assigned to work the rail road receiving docks when a train of new inmates arrived.
“This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is the title story of the collection of his stories based on his time in Auschwitz, he was there for two years. As of now I do not have a clear understanding of the pre-translation publication history of the stories. It was first translated into English in 1959 and the very dark humour in his stories is said to have had a large influence on Central European Literature.
Just the title to the story has kind of a ghoulish feel as we imagine a demented evil resort flunky telling that to new arrivals to Auschwitz. The story is narrated by a Kapo, working train arrivals. One of the rules was that arrivals were not told they were being sent directly to the gas chamber, if they were sent right. The narrator sees terrible things as the trains unload. It is a lot of work just to pile up the bodies of those who died on the train, to be burned on the spot. In one seen relayed as if commonplace a three year old child with only one leg is burned with the dead, to save the work of carrying her to the gas chamber.
Working the arriving trains was a plumb assignment. The S S was there to supervise and take the gold and jewels from the suitcases. The inmate workers got to keep any food found in the luggage which is why they liked the assignments. They judge each arriving train based on how much food they score.
The arriving prisoners are in a state of extreme panic. The job of the Kapos is to keep them under control. There is no empathy, the worker inmates focus on their own survival. They have no hesitation to beat arrivals to keep order. Over it all young Germans stand guard with machine guns, ready almost eager to shoot arrivals.
Everyone’s humanity is destroyed.
This story and the full collection is considered a classic of Polish and Holocaust Literature.
When I learned that at age 28 Borowski committed suicide by breathing in the fumes from a gas oven, it chilled me.
You can read this story and a few other Holocaust short stories at the link above.
Elgia’s Revenge” - A Short Story by Chava Rosenfarb - 1981- translated from Yiddish
First published in 1981, Elgia’s Revenge is the most famous work by Chava Rosenfarb. (With an estimated reading time of 65 minutes, some would see it as a novella.) It is included in her collection, Survivors and in a very good anthology, Found Treasures:Stories by Yiddish Women Writers edited by Sarah Swartz, Ethel Raicus, and Maggie Wolfe.
The story is told by a woman, now living in Montreal, who was a Kapo at a concentration camp. Kapos were Jewish inmates who were in charge of other Jews. They acted as police for the Nazis, often beating other Jews and even helped select those to be executed. They did the cruelest jobs. By doing this they received preferential treatment. They were totally hated by all. We first meet our narrator as her camp has been liberated. She is riding with other ex-internees on an American trucks. One of the men on the truck is identified as an ex-kapo. He is beaten to death. Our narrator once preformed an act of kindness for a woman on the truck and she begs her not to tell others she was a kapo. We learn of the horrible sexual abuse the narrator took just to stay alive. She tells us many in the camps lost their faith in God.
Eventually both women now move to Montreal, where many Holocaust survivors were accepted. We follow the lives of the two women for years. We see how the camp years impacts their close relationships. As I learned in a nonfiction book this month, the survivors were often highly cultured people who were so happy to be able to read again. The narrator and Elgia are part of a social group of Holocaust survivors. Most do very well in Montreal, moving from their initial small apartments to elegant houses as they succeeded professionally. The narrator herself becomes affluent by founding a high end women’s clothing store. Rosenfarb does a wonderful job creating the characters, we meet their husbands, observe their affairs. Always the narrator fears Elgia will reveal to the others she was a kapo.
“Elgia’s Revenge” was a pure delight. It is not just a story of The impact of The Holocaust on survivors but on The Jewish Canadian Imigrant Experience.
CHAVA ROSENFARB (1923 - 2011)Prize-winning writer of fiction, poetry and drama, Chava Rosenfarb was born February 9, 1923 in Lodz, the industrial centre of Poland before the Second World War. She completed Jewish secular school and gymnasium in this community where several hundred thousand Jews lived —nearly half the population of the area. The Holocaust put an end to one of the richest centres of Judaism in all of Europe. Like many Jews of the city, Rosenfarb was incarcerated in the infamous Lodz ghetto. She survived there from 1940 to 1944, when she and her sister Henia became inmates of the concentration camps of Auschwitz, then Sasel and Bergen-Belsen. Even in the ghetto Rosenfarb wrote, and she hasn’t stopped since. Her first collection of ghetto poems, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald [The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest] was published in London in 1947. After the liberation Rosenfarb moved to Belgium. She remained in Belgium until 1950, when she immigrated immigrated to Montreal. In Montreal, Rosenfarb obtained a diploma at the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in 1954. Rosenfarb has produced a prolific body of writing, all of which speaks from her experience during the Holocaust. Her work has been translated into both Hebrew and English. Rosenfarb has been widely anthologized and has had her work appear in journals in Israel, England, the United States, Canada and Australia in Yiddish and in English and Hebrew translation. Among the many prizes awarded her work, she has received the I.J. Segal Prize (Montreal, 1993), the Sholom Aleichem Prize (Tel-Aviv, 1990) and the Niger Prize (Buenos Aires, 1972). She has travelled extensively, lecturing on Yiddish literature in Australia, Europe and South America as well as in Israel and the United States.. From Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers.. from Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women.
The Ghetto Dog - A Short Story by Isaiah Spiegel- 1942 -set in the Łódź Ghetto
On the Link below you will discover a beautiful reading by Laureen Becall
Prussia, the ruler of Germany, was always an enemy of the intellect, of books, of the Book of Books—that is, the Bible—of Jews and Christians, of humanism and Europe. Hitler’s Third Reich is only so alarming to the rest of Europe because it sets itself to put into action what was always the Prussian project anyway: to burn the books, to murder the Jews, and to revise Christianity." Joseph Roth, 1933"
There is, for me at least, a huge elephant in the room when one talks of the very real glories of German Culture, from Goethe, the great novels and music and Ulm Cathedral. That elephant is the Holocaust. Some will say. every culture has a dark side and try to rationalise things. Others, as does Joseph Roth and I, see it as more than that. There are strange connections in history. Not long ago I read a very scholarly biography of the German Emperor Frederick the Great, worshiped by the Nazis for his military bravado. The main thesis of the book was that Frederick became a warrior king to prove his father, who rightly saw that Frederick was a homosexual, was wrong. From this the Prussian ethic developed and the Nazis state was derivative from Frederick’s trying to show his father he was wrong. Jews were treated as sexual deviants and homosexuality was criminal, though of course many Nazis were homosexuals. Hitler raved about the decadence of the Weimar Republic.
Yiddish literature derives from a thousand year old culture based in Eastern Europe and Russia. No culture that I’m familiar with cherished the Reading Life more. The Holocaust was in part a war on those who loved books, knowledge and Reading. Germans tried very hard to destroy this culture, it was not an aberation. Joseph Roth is right.
Today’s story, “The Ghetto Dog” by Isaiah Spegel, written when he was confined in The Lodz Ghetto in Poland, takes us inside the Ghetto. He was there from 1941 to 1944, when he was shipped out to Auschwitz. He survived and wrote wonderful stories focusing on the small details of life in Łódź under the Germans.
Laureen Bacall reads this story at the link above. She does a wonderful job.
I must warn you that this is very much a story of deep pain, heart breaking in the cruelty and subhuman behavior of the Germans. Some will be disturbed by this but that is ok, you should be disturbed. I listened to it once last night and again this morning. It is The most powerful literary work I have read this month for sheer depth of feeling and insight.
As “The Ghetto Dog” opens an elderly Jewish woman, living with her beloved old dog Nicki, is ordered out of her home of decades, one she shared with her late husband, by a uniformed armed German. When her normally completely placid dog prepares to go for the throat of the German she restrains him, begging the German not to shoot him. She is moved into the part of Łódź,
Poland, where Jews are allowed to live. The Germans place her and Nicki in a room with a prostitute, called Big Bertha. This alone is a shock to the widow. At first Bertha is very upset over having to share her quarters, she says Nicki is scaring her clients and tells the widow to go out on the balcony while she services a visitor.
In a very moving perfectly done scene, something happens that bonds the two women, Bertha comes to love Nicki. They sleep on the couch together. Then the Germans issue a cruel vicious degree, all animals owned by Jews must be turned over to the Germans. Many in the ghetto survive with the help of the animals. Spegel,shows us whole families leading “Jewish Cows, Jewish Horses and Jewish Dogs” to be turned over. They weep, kiss the animals as they part. The horses and cows are taken away by German farmers. The dogs are shot.
Bertha goes with the widow to turn Nicki over, there is no hiding him. The close of the story is so moving, with almost a supernatural beauty and wisdom. It is perfect, so visual.
It takes thirty minutes to listen to “The Ghetto Dog”, Leonard Nimoy, deeply into Yiddish literature introduces the story and gives background information.
This is a masterwork, deeply felt and moving.
This is a great story, I know I sound hyperbolic, but that is how I feel.
From Northwest University Press
Tales of the Lodz Ghetto
Isaiah Spiegel was an inmate of the Lodz Ghetto from its inception in 1940 until its liquidation in 1944. While there, he wrote short stories depicting Jewish life in the ghetto and managed to hide them before he was deported to Auschwitz. After being freed, he returned to Lodz to retrieve and publish his stories.
The stories examine the relationship between inmates and their families, their friends, their Christian former neighbors, the German soldiers, and, ultimately, the world of hopelessness and desperation that surrounded them. In using his creative powers to transform the suffering and death of his people into stories that preserve their memory, Spiegel succeeds in affirming the humanity and dignity the Germans were so intent on destroying.
About the Author
Isaiah Spiegel was born in the industrial city of Lódz in 1906. After surviving Auschwitz, he immigrated to Israel, where he continued to write stories, novels, poems, and essays. He died in Israel in 1990.