The Soul of Things

An excerpt

Éva Fahidi

Artwork by Yohei Oishi

Anyone who has been in Auschwitz has two lives, a life before Auschwitz and a life after it. In your life after Auschwitz, be it ever so long, in every moment of that life and in every hidden recess of your body and in every hidden corner of your soul, it is there whether you like it or not, whether you try to suppress it or chose to talk about it. Auschwitz is there, lurking in the background.

After years of deliberation, hesitation and anxiety-filled preparation, on July 1, 2003, fifty-nine years to the day that I arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau on the early morning of July 1, 1944, I finally took the plunge. I wanted to confront my memories alone, without others around. I almost said that I went back home to Birkenau. If members of certain primitive tribes take the bones of their ancestors with them when they move camp because they say that their home is where the mortal remains of their ancestors repose, if one's roots are where one's dearly departed lie in the earth, then I should never have left Birkenau in the first place. The ashes of my immediate family were dumped in the nearby swamps, and so were the ashes of my extended family, and if I say they made fifty in number, I am not far off the mark. I can't help thinking that I have deserted them, and that my place should be with them, another handful of dust in the swamps of Birkenau.

I dreaded this reunion, the reunion with the all too familiar landscape, the swamp, the long rows of barracks, the fences topped with barbed wire and changed with electricity, the watch towers that encircled the camp and from where the guards kept an eye on us day and night, the dreary, desolate surroundings where nothing, not even a blade of grass could survive because tens of thousands of feet trampled over it day in and day out.

I dreaded having to experience the former tension-filled atmosphere once again bursting at the seams with cries, cruelty, filth and the stench of overcrowded humanity, the hunger, the thirst, the humiliation that was relentlessly doled out to us, the unaccountable bad feeling that the lack of perspective, the uncertainly, the sense of futility bring out of a person, because this is what Birkenau had meant to me, and more.

But I was in for a shock. What I saw left me unimpressed. Auschwitz had become a tourist paradise with an incredibly bad Russian film that does more to hide what had taken place there than to reveal it.

The air was refreshing and pleasant in Birkenau, the landscape transformed beyond recognition, the meadow covered in a thick carpet of undulating green grass imparting a sense of calm, the wild flowers nodded their heads at me from among the grass. Peace and tranquility all around. My eyes went in search of grazing sheep and the shepherd boy with his flute, for nothing could have suited the idyllic landscape more. Instead they found a strange forest of chimneys and the remnants of the heating system that stretched along the former barracks and ended in the chimneys. At one end of the landscape, like a baroque garden, ruins – the tumbledown remains of the demolished crematorium. But where was the Lagerstrasse, and where the Appelplatz? 

I have never seen this place before.

And I couldn't refrain from thinking that if this place has nothing to say to me, who has experienced things here that have influenced the rest of my life and weigh on my soul like a nightmare as long as I shall live, if what I see here has such little effect on me, what could it possibly say to an "outsider"? Is there a way to relate, to explain, to pass on what had transpired in Auschwitz-Birkenau sixty years before?

The fact that there is no Hungarian-language slate in front of the demolished crematoria to tell the world that in a record breaking fifty-one days starting with April 1944, three-hundred and forty-thousand Hungarian Jews were cremated in this camp without regard to age or gender (according to the latest statistics anyway), this made me think. Still, better late than never. I hope to see the day when this plaque, too, will be unveiled to stand in the company of all the others.

How many of the survivors are left to remember?

Hundreds of us die every day. Even the youngest of us is past seventy, while most of us are in our eighties and nineties.

Though I tried to relegate them to the deepest recesses of my subconscious mind if, indeed, there are several recesses of the subconscious, my memories, like the memories of us all, are indelible.

Is anyone left to remember with me the almost tangible, charged tension in the air in which there was no knowing what catastrophe might strike at any moment? Is anyone left to remember the constant screaming ringing in our ears? Because in Auschwitz, nobody spoke. The Kapos, the Blockältestes, the Stubendienstes, the SS, the guards, even the truck drivers knew only one way of making themselves known to us – by screaming at the top of their lungs.

Is anyone left to remember the crowded conditions under which you couldn't walk a yard's length without bumping into someone, the everlasting Appels early every morning and every night, the Lagerstrasse lined with sharp, pointed basalt rock on which we're forced to kneel with arms stretched toward the sky whenever the Appel doesn't tally, and we can't move until the "culprit" is found, maybe a woman who has heard that her daughter or mother is in the other camp and has gone to find them, only to be brought back, and the two of them beaten to death in front of our eyes?

Is anyone left to recall the swamp as the only available source of water, whose only purpose is to add to our suffering because it is filthy and it stinks and it is contaminated and is unfit for drinking? Can anyone explain how we could restrain ourselves from drinking from it under the scorching July and August sun when we were made to stay outside all day long, because the barracks were only for sleeping?

Is anyone left who remembers the water-barrow and the driver that filled it up? Way back when our camp, number BII, was built, they set up a water tank meant to serve a hundred people at most. This tank was refilled every day. But by the time I was taken to the camp, we numbered in the tens of thousands. We had no water, and the driver who brought the water beat the thirsty crowd with a whip when we stormed the water-barrow like a herd of wild animals. His favorite pass time was to knock the water out of the hand of anyone who, by some miracle, was able to dip her cup into the barrow.

Is anyone left to remember the air, always laden, the smoking chimneys not far from our block, and can they remember that when we asked our Kapos where the rest of our family were, they laughed, pointed to the rising smoke and said: "There!" We didn't believe them. Why are they so mean, we asked, why do they say such horrible things? Why do the Kapos want to add to our suffering?

I still remember our Blockälteste Sosanka who was brought to Auschwitz from Czechoslovakia along with five of her sisters when there was nothing but snow and more snow in place of the future barracks. They were among those who started building the camp. They were surrounded by dogs, with the SS barracks at a distance. They toiled in the snow, for months washed themselves with snow, with no place to huddle up for warmth. Of the six sisters she was the only one to survive. Now I know why she kept pointing to the smoking stacks. Could anyone who had spent even one day in Auschwitz keep their humanity intact? And what is to be said of a person who buried five of her sisters and survived at the price of unendurable physical hardship and humiliation and evil that continued to weight on her soul throughout a lifetime? For in order to survive in Auschwitz for any length of time, you had to trample underfoot the living as well as the dead. You could survive, but you could not remain a human being.

Is anyone left who remembers the Blockälteste who stood in the door of her barrack all day long and screamed, demented, "I am a political prisoner! I am a political prisoner!" thus trying to distance herself from the miserable wretches around her, whereas even by non-Auschwitz standards she was as fat as a pig, because she gobbled up the rations of her fellows. That she didn't seem to mind, apparently.

Is anyone left to remember the Revier that was two blocks away from my own block, and where they took the corpses wrapped in blankets after every Appel? One day I was happy to discover that Auntie Kató Horváth, our pediatrician from Debrecen, was working in the Revier. We loved Auntie Kató very much. She was a sweet, kind lady. When we were ill, she treated us children as if we were grownups. She would explain to us what the matter was and what we could do to make it better. If she had to give us a shot, she always told us in advance that it would hurt a little, but it was going to fix us up. Knowing that Aunt Kató was just two blocks down from me made me feel safe. But when the infectious dysentery caught up with me and I ran to her in the Revier, she screamed at me and threw me out, and even when I was outside, she still kept screaming, "You better not show your face here again, or I'll beat the living daylights out of you!" I thought she'd gone crazy, whereas she was just trying to save my life.

Is anyone left to recall the food portioning and the bowls that had been taken from the belongings of the deportees? Five of us ate out of one bowl, others out of a pot, a pan, a cup, but without eating utensils or a chance to wash up, of course. Small piles of chlorine of lime were scattered throughout the camp, which we used instead of water, because there was no water around. To this day, when I smell chlorine – and I smell it every time the water from the tub flows down the drain – I think of Auschwitz.

Is anyone left to remember the unparalleled Auschwitz cuisine? In the morning they gave us some sort of liquid in our communal cup. They said it was coffee (were they making fun of us?) and we drank it in the following manner: each of us took two sips, and then maybe two more the second time around, and if anything of the nondescript liquid was still left at the bottom, each of us could have one last sip. We were not yet familiar with the dog-eat-dog law that ruled Auschwitz. We still counted the sips to make sure that each of us received an equal share.

Anyone who has been to Auschwitz remembers the Auschwitz recipe for Dörgemüsse. Under normal circumstances, Dörgemüsse is a tasty dish made from dried ingredients. In Auschwitz there was no knowing what was in the cauldron from which we were given an inedible mixture of grass, wood, twigs, leaves and other ingredients of unascertainable origin. But we kept on telling each other that we must stay strong and healthy until we managed to force ourselves to eat the contents of our communal cup. There was one dish, however, that I couldn't swallow no matter what – the sweet porridge. I have never been able to figure out how and from what it was made. It was so cloyingly sweet that a single bite turned my stomach, so no matter how hungry I was, I couldn't get it down.

Anyone who has been to Auschwitz also remembers the slop-pail, which became a reliable means of humiliating us. Thanks to the over-eager Hungarian authorities, in just under two months, four hundred thirty thousand Hungarians were taken to Auschwitz, a veritable flood of newcomers the camp was ill prepared to receive. Though I did not have a chance to study the original blueprints, I speak from personal experience when I say that in order to function at an optimum, the carefully planned death camp would have been ideally suited to a tenth of its inmates. There were at least ten times as many of us, alas, and consequently, there were ten times fewer latrines than were needed.

This is where the slop-pail came into the picture.

The slop-pail was a sort of ante-latrine, which is one way of putting it. The other is that every full slop-pail had to reach the latrine. Except, due to the above-mentioned state of over-crowding, there weren't enough slop-pails either, and so the overflowing slop-pail also became part and parcel of the Auschwitz "landscape". In order to use it, it had to be emptied out, which meant that it had to be picked up, and, due to the law of gravity, even with the greatest of care this entailed the spilling of its contents all over our hands, feet, and clothes. Then once we reached the latrine, the pail had to be slightly tipped so its contents could slip out and land where they belonged, which invariably meant yet another close encounter with its contents. Water, soap, and towels were not part of the amenities at Auschwitz.

The suffering and humiliation cannot be forgotten, nor do I want to forget – neither I, nor my former inmates. But how can "our" Auschwitz, or "my" Birkenau, be handed down even to our closest relatives and loved ones, if they weren't there with us in a place where not a single blade of grass survived, where sharp gray stones lined the Lagerstrasse, where we stood for Appel until we dropped, and where today nature holds sway?

Our memories of the real Auschwitz and the real Birkenau have been overgrown with grass, now and for all time to come.

translated from the Hungarian by Judith Sollosy

This authorized translation is based on Éva Fahidi, Anima Rerum. A Dolgok Lelke, second edition, Tudomány Kiadó, Budapest, 2005-2006.