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When a survivor of Auschwitz asks for your story, what do you say?

I didn’t know. I still don’t

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

My aim as a hospital visitor is to cheer, befriend, have a chat, do something to disrupt the bleak monotony of the modern hospital day. Some patients talk amiably while others are grumpy, demented patients kept on wards for months and who won’t shut up. Many conversations lead nowhere. Some days the pillow talk is dull, so I paid attention when someone in the chaplaincy mentioned a lady who’d been in Auschwitz and still had the camp tattoo.

I’d heard of Polish girls working in London cafés after the war showing numbers etched on their arms, but I’d never met anyone who had one. I taught English in Poland for a year and made friends with a student who came from the village of Oswiecim, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz. She first invited me to her home modestly telling me that the town was ‘famous for its ice-rink’. Her late father had been taken to the camp to work as a slave at the age of 16. On arrival a guard knocked his teeth out.

Another Polish friend had a grandfather who was murdered by the Nazis in Krakow jail, and his uncle, who also got the dental treatment on arrival in Auschwitz, had been hanged in the camp. I once lived in a flat where the lady upstairs told me her mother had died in Auschwitz aged 40. She showed me her photo. So I have known those who survived the survivors, but no one who could talk about being there.

Almost as soon as I reached her bedside, the tiny lady, now 91, showed me her arm. Her blue tattoo had blurred with time, so you couldn’t see the ‘AU’ for the camp, the P for Poland or the numbers, but she remembered them. I held her arm and stared at what looked like a barcode for some time. ‘You want my story,’ she said, and gave it. Her father, a doctor, had died before the war. When she was 19, she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz with other educated, middle-class Poles. Soviet POWs were the first inmates, systematically starved to death, followed by Poles; the Jews arrived in 1942.


‘We were upper-class,’ she explained with a self-deprecating smile. There were 150,000 non-Jewish Poles who went through the camp. Her brother, who was politically active, became a slave labourer in Germany.

‘You can’t imagine my life before the war,’ she said, sounding breathless. ‘I was going to become a doctor. We worked hard at our studies but we seemed to go dancing every night. Then I remember the Germans banging on our door.’

She imitated the gesture of this and I was eager to know what happened next; arrival in the camp, the dogs, the smell, the noise, the hunger. She was too feeble to describe anything vividly apart from a daily roll-call when a woman who was ill hid inside the barracks, but the Germans brought her out and stamped her to death. ‘Terrible, terrible,’ she said, trying impossibly to convey it. I felt nothing, no empathy, just a kind of flatness. I was barely able to focus on what she said.

I have read so many books about those events. There is some brilliant Holocaust literature, particularly by women; amazing tales of survival such as Magda Denes’s bitter memoir of her childhood in Budapest, and Ruth Altbeker Cypry’s story of how her mother kept a hacksaw down her stocking and eventually used it to saw through the bars of a cattle truck bound for Treblinka, and saved them both. Now, faced with someone who was actually there, I was skipping ahead as if the old lady in the bed was just another book. As she told me her mother had died in the camp, I was on the next page, looking for something I had not read about before, something new.

She mentioned the starvation and eating potato peelings. She’d survived by being sent to a munitions factory in Germany where she got more food. At some point she’d escaped, made her way back to Poland and joined the partisans. ‘I just wanted to kill,’ she told me. After the war she’d waited for her brother to return, but he’d died in Buchenwald. ‘That was when my life really ended,’ she said.

‘And what about your story?’ she asked suddenly, in a penetrating voice. I’m not supposed to speak about myself to the patients, and as she was deaf I didn’t fancy shouting out personal details. It should have been a conversation on equal terms to brighten a dull morning, but she was in the wrong context for that, and I had put her there. She looked disappointed. She’d given but got nothing.

She’d told me her story freely, almost thrown it at me, knowing that was what I wanted from her, and I shouldn’t have let her do it. She’d had a long life, which had not physically ended in 1945 — there was her marriage in England, her children, who she said did not visit her. Why hadn’t I dug about in that? We both knew that I wasn’t really interested in what came after. As I left her bedside, I felt like a thief rather than a friend.

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  • hacimo

    soon they will all be gone. And then the screams from the gas chamber will fade away in the distance.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Interesting that the number of Holocaust survivors is increasing year on year.

      • hacimo

        Make them show you the tattoo on the forearm. The Germans were very organized and careful to identify their prisoners. I have glimpsed that tattoo only once fora brief second. It was on the arm of an elderly professor as he wrote an equation on the board. Suddenly all was clear.

      • jjjj

        Interesting that the amount of human stupidity that manifests itself by certain posters increases month on month,

  • There is Auschwitz and then there is Palestine. Both are genocide, one against the Jews and the other for them. These two atrocities must be made separate. One who supports the Palestinians is not anti-Semitic. For one thing, the Palestinians are pure Semitic. The Israelis cannot call those who support the Palestinians, anti-Semitic. In essence it is the Israelis who was using the Holicaust in order to abuse the Palestinians. Shame! Shame!

    • hacimo

      Stop with your bullkaka. It is disgusting.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Do the Israelis kill Palestinians with poison gas? I must have missed that.

      • Artillery, bombs, machine guns.

        • Fergus Pickering

          And how many millions have they killed? And where is the document where the Israelis decide they must kill all arabs. Because Palestinians are no more a race than Yorkshiremen are.

    • jjjj

      Someone clearly brainwashed by the Islamofascist company he keeps. It’s because of the bad apples in your religion and the silent applause from the rest that we are all living in fear today. Your Islamofascist pals and the tacit cooperation they receive from co-religionists are the source of most of the world’s problems.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    With very exceptions, very few with a reputation to protect are prepared to stick their head above the parapet and say, “Isn’t it possible that the mass gassing followed by mass cremations was created by the British Psychological Warfare Department?

    • Treebrain

      Any credible evidence to support your assertion?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        In fact yes. Auschwitz, Crematoria II, the Authorised version claims 500,000 cremated in 20 months. With a cremation taking one hour, even with German efficiency, working 24/7 with no down time, with the facilities available literally impossible within the time frame. The massing at up to 2,000 a time would have been just possible, but cremation of the bodies would have been the bottleneck.
        Then there is the hand written annotation on a relevant document recently discovered in British war records of 1944 made by the head of the Psychological Warfare Department essential saying that the gas chambers were an invention of PWD. “We’ve set the hare running, but now we have to distance ourselves as eventually the hoax will be discovered.” Bad case if guilding the Lilly.
        You’ll have to do the research yourself, as I’m on an i-pad till I get back to Japan where I reside as a resident abroad Brit.
        Jack, Penang

        • Fergus Pickering

          Quite mad. And very nasty. You must have let Japanese savagery rub off on you Or perhaps, like Adolf, you were just born that way. Do you also believe Tony Blair is a murderous pedophile? People do.

    • jjjj

      You are a lunatic. Go back on your meds. Someone like you should be transported back in time to Auschwitz or Treblinka so you can go through what a Holocaust victim suffered. Then, as you lie gasping your last breath perhaps you can reflect on your experience.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        I only respond to sane Internet correspondents.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Explain that crious remark. Hitler decided to kill the Jews when he wrote Mein Kampf. He said so.

  • Treebrain

    ” There were 150,000 non-Jewish Poles who went through the camp.”

    Fascinating to hear a tale from a Pole who was not Jewish at Auschwitz.

    Of course, Soviet Russia wreaked a terrible revenge on Polish society for daring to defeat it in the Russian-Polish War of 1920.

    Little wonder that the Poles made such an incredible contribution to the Allied war effort in WW2?

    Without the Polish cryptographers and their Enigma expertise, the Polish pilots with their combat experience that secured victory in the Battle of Britain and the Polish military who made the fourth largest number of combatants in WW2 against Nazi Germany victory would not have been ossible.

    What a debt is owed!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Without the least fear of contradiction, I can state the no one died in the Auschwitz gas chambers shown to visitors. How can I make this bold statement? Because the so-called originals were demolished by the Soviets in 1945 so the current tourist attraction were replicas built by the Poles in 1947/8.
    Jack, Penang

  • Five Guyz

    As surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn, the lights of liberty are found in the pages you turn: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0094KY878

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