THE ANNEX BLOG – RETURNING TO AUSCHWITZ – 27.1.15
He sits down on the steps of Block 9. They’d spent the first night here, herded in like livestock, four to each lice-riddled pallet. He listens to the camp. Wind sweeps through the woods. It’s quiet here, far too quiet, a peaceful place, where only five hours ago tourists had been roaming with their sunhats, bottles of beer and water – peaceful visitors who tried hard to feel a trace of what had once existed there.
He jumps up, walks quickly to the middle of the camp road, stops, turns abruptly, tilts his head up, thrusts his chest out, clicks his heels, stands tall and calls out his name: 63 387. He takes off his cap and claps it against the seam of his trousers, his eyes frozen and unblinking. Muster at half past four in the morning. Prisoners in front of him, behind him, next to him, a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand – he hadn’t counted – outside in thin rags at twenty-two below. He points to the left, towards the exit, where Rapportführer Kaduk is goose-stepping towards them with the list. He straightens up. Legs spread wide, he’s showing off. Bellows: Five hundred men to the road-building Arbeitskommando! Count off! They count, man by man, to five hundred.
Fall into rows of ten!
Everyone runs and no one knows where he’s supposed to go.
It’s muddled disarray. How do you make rows of ten? The Kapos know it and they hit the men until they stand stiff as tin soldiers. They march towards the camp gate – can you see them, Lena? The prisoners freezing, their panicked fear of the man with the list. Stand up, Lena, come here, stand next to me.
Lena doesn’t move. Heiner, you can’t be serious.
Hesitantly, she gets up and stands next to him. I can’t do this, Heiner, she says, I can’t relive your time here.
You have to try!
Heiner, I wasn’t there. I’ve never feared for my life. I don’t know what it feels like to be beaten with a club.
Look to the left, there’s Kaduk.
For you, Heiner, not for me.
God damn it, why not?
They stand in the camp in the middle of the night, pondering why it isn’t possible to transfer memories like a book. Heiner is distraught.
What do you see when I speak? Nothing? You just hear words?
I see images, but they’re not the ones you see.
What are they, if they’re not the ones I see?
I see pictures that my mind knows because I’ve seen them before somewhere – in books, films, or photographs. I’ll never see what you see – is that bad?
It’s a catastrophe.
She takes his hand. During my last year at school we did Danton’s Death. I played Julie, his wife. At the beginning of the play I ask Danton: Do you trust me? Danton says: How can I tell? We’re lumbering, thick-skinned animals. Our hands reach out to touch, to feel, but the strain’s pointless. All we can do is blunder around, rubbing our leathery hides up against each other. We’re very much alone.
If images can’t be passed on, what about sounds? Heiner hears sirens. The way they wail when an attempted escape is discovered. He hears commands: bellowed, barked from men’s throats. He hears thousands of wooden clogs hitting asphalt, and the music of the camp orchestra. The songs of prisoners marching; he hears dogs yapping, he hears their excited panting before they’re let off their leashes.
Lena, what do you hear?
The wind. And you. You want to bring the dead camp to life. What are you trying to find here?
Prisoner 63 387.
Does he still exist? What do you want from him?
I want to make sure that he doesn’t die.
Why do you keep nursing him?
One time he had gotten in line with the people who stood waiting to buy a ticket to enter the camp. Inch by inch he advanced patiently, one among many, indistinguishable from the other museum patrons. It was summer, peak season – he waited for an hour to reach the ticket counter. When he was asked how many tickets he needed, or if he was alone, he’d turned around in horror and run away. He couldn’t buy tickets, it was impossible – he wasn’t a visitor. Entry had been free for prisoners, and it ought to remain so.
They sit back down on the steps of the Block. It’s quiet in the camp. The birds are asleep; somewhere rats or mice are rustling. There are Blocks that no one has been in for years, whose inner walls have all collapsed. Heiner lights a cigarette. He’s not a nervous smoker – he enjoys every drag as if it’s his last one. He draws the smoke deep into his belly, holds it there, and then slowly lets it out again. Look, Lena, the road-building Arbeitskommando. Average survival time: fourteen days. Three weeks, if you’re lucky.
On his first “workday,” he’d pushed a wheelbarrow full of sand back and forth across the grounds for sixteen hours straight. The Kapo screamed commands at his back. Go, go, you lazy pig, dalli, dalli. He had to fill the wheelbarrow to the brim with heavy wet sand. Why the rush? he whispered to his neighbor. They have a thousand years. That first day he was still able to make jokes. He didn’t touch his soup at lunch, though hunger was devouring him. The soup was foul – it stank of cabbage and shit.
Look, Lena, the Kapo of the road-building Kommando – I’m not sure if the man had a shred of humanity in him. Jupp, he was called. Jupp Krankemann from Cologne; we called him “the fat pig.” He was a giant. Jupp came to Auschwitz as a common thief. They made him a Kapo, and he voluntarily did the SS’s dirty work for them – he killed ten men a day, sometimes fifteen. Poles, Russians, Germans, Jews, Christians – it didn’t matter, only the numbers mattered. Never fewer than ten. Jupp crept up behind them, raised his spade over their heads, turned it vertical, and struck. Heiner jumps up, raises his arms, which grip an invisible handle, swings it over his head, sneaks forward a few hunched steps, shoots up, and lets his hands hurtle down. Can you see it, Lena?
Stop it, I feel sick.
Then you see it! Jupp could cleave skulls with his spade – his technique was perfect. He hit them right in the middle of their heads. On my first day, he stood behind me and screamed: Why isn’t your wheelbarrow full, you lazy pig, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him lifting his spade…and then suddenly you have the strength, because you want to live, and you run with your full wheelbarrow, even if you don’t think your legs will carry you one more foot.
She puts her arm around him. Why are you torturing yourself like this?