when we sang at Auschwitz
June 4, 2013
… was red. Red trousers, Capri style. I was wearing other items as well, including a black linen coat that suggested the kind of outerwear you’d see on a Yeshiva boy, which was kind of ironic given the setting, but the key item was the pair of red trousers.
I ended up at Auschwitz – and isn’t that a phrase to give one pause – because I sing with a choir in Cambridge. Every other year our choir goes to a different European city and performs a series of concerts. Two years ago it was Seville, where it rained every day and my espadrilles disintegrated. Before that, it was Bruges, which was very pleasant although strangely reminiscent of Disneyland. This time, we were in Krakow, with six recitals in three days, including the mini-concert in Auschwitz, where we stood on a grassy knoll between the public toilets and Crematorium One and sang a Hebrew song.
That’s a lot of information to take in.
I think I’ll go back to the beginning.
When the Krakow trip was first mooted, I decided not to participate in the Auschwitz bit of the tour. It was enough of a challenge for me to go to Poland in the first place. It’s a country my family put a lot of effort into trying to leave, and by 1939, the ones who hadn’t left seemed to disappear – the telegrams and anxious letters they’d been sending to New York just stopped coming. It turned out they’d all been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. That’s where they died, at places like Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek, gassed or shot or starved to death. The only one who didn’t disappear, who survived Auschwitz in fact, was cousin Regina, who had the luck/misfortune of being young, blonde and pretty.
Family lore has it Mengele himself picked her out of the line up during the selection process and kept her on to ‘help out’ in the unspeakable hospital he ran in the Auschwitz barracks. I’m hazy on the details, but somehow Regina managed to stay alive until the camp was liberated. She emigrated to America and there she was at all the weddings and bar mitzvahs of my childhood, still pretty, with a charming accent and a chiffon scarf nicely draped over the numbers tattooed in blue on her arm. I’m not claiming a distinction here. Barring certain specifics, this is a common story, a shared history among most Jews and the only point I’m making is that with one thing and another, I figured I could give Auschwitz a miss.
In the weeks leading up to the Krakow trip we rehearsed the program we’d be presenting –Stanford, Thomas Ford, some very catchy Handel and Enosh, the Hebrew song the choir planned for Auschwitz. When we practice, we move from piece to piece, no particular order and with Enosh all mixed in with the rest of the repertoire I ended up singing along. What was I going to do – stand there with my mouth clamped shut?
The word Enosh means a man or humanity in general – Hebrew has some give when it comes to translation — and the song is about goodness and mercy and the frailty of life. As we became more confident with the pronunciation, the strength of the melody began to emerge.
It’s plaintive, not surprisingly, but it’s also very powerful and one night, at a point in the song when the altos get to soar – I’m an alto — elated by that pure sound and a little high from all the oxygen you take in when you sing, I experienced an epiphany:
I realized I had to go to Auschwitz after all, because singing at that death camp was the best fuck you I could imagine. I’d stand there and warble about loving kindness and man’s days are as grass, and what I’d really be saying was, Hey! Nazi thugs! I’m here. You didn’t get all of us.
That’s also when I decided to wear the red trousers. I saw it as a small act of provocation, a red capote to taunt the bull.
I guess I was feeling a little thug-like myself.
We flew to Krakow on the first Bank Holiday in May and the next morning we piled onto a bus and took the highway due west to Auschwitz.
There wasn’t much to see along the way: blank countryside with scattered Soviet-era housing and the occasional farm. Some trees. As we neared Auschwitz, the landscape became more industrial — coal mines, factories, a confluence of railway lines. This reminded me that Auschwitz had functioned as more than just a death camp; it was a work camp as well — high profit, low overhead. Very low overhead. Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free – that’s the insidious motto that greets you when you arrive.
What also greets you are fast food stands and the meaty smell of grilled sausage. This afforded a communal sense of relief, as in, Look at all those people buying kielbasa and Coke Zero! Why, this isn’t so bad, it’s Auschwitz as excursion.
But of course, it was bad.
There were a lot of layers to Auschwitz. The chemist Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived his year there, called it a complete totalitarian state, no brakes, no accountability. It was the most exacting of bureaucracies: think OCD coupled with sadism.
As a complex, it contained three core sites: Auschwitz I, the main camp, administration and prisoners’ barracks; Auschwitz-Birkenau II, extermination; and Auschwitz III, the work camp – slave labor.
Each camp had its layers of authority, starting with the commandant and his senior personnel –SS and Gestapo, the SS in their sharp Hugo Boss uniforms – continuing on down to the guard battalions, the filing clerks and the guys in the motor pool.
The prison population had its own hierarchy. Inmate trustees –non-Jews – acted as overseers, maintaining watch and control over the other prisoners, typically with great brutality. Below that was a sub-division of trustees called Sonderkommando, a forced-labor unit of male prisoners, almost all Jews, all of them strong and able-bodied. Strength was a job requirement because, as one of the few survivors of the unit put it, “We did the dirty work of the Holocaust.” The role of a Sonderkommando was to escort new arrivals to the gas chambers, cut the hair off the dead and yank out any gold teeth and then haul the bodies to the crematoriums for burning. The members of this division lived in relative comfort or at least marginally less squalor, with more food and better housing, access to contraband liquor and medicine. But there was a time limit to these amenities: after a few months of service the existing Sonderkommando division was routinely eliminated, every member killed. It was considered they knew too much to live.
After Auschwitz was liberated a notebook was found under a pile of human ash in one of the crematoriums. It was a step by step account of the camp and the life of a Sonderkommando. The author was a Polish Jew named Zalman Gradowski, and he was a singularly brave man. Not only had he risked severe punishment by writing the account, but he also organized the only prisoner uprising at Auschwitz. It took place in October 1944 and when it was over 70 SS guards were dead. So were 200 Sonderkommando, including Gradowski, but it’s not hard to imagine that by this point his death was of small consequence to him; his notebook makes it clear his time as a human ended when he became a Sonderkommando. To do this job, to be a member of this division, he wrote, “One must be transformed into a robot, become unseeing, unfeeling and uncomprehending.”
To a small degree that may be what some people do when they visit Auschwitz, even now in its stripped down, repentant state; they assume a suspended, robotic frame of mind. It’s what I did, put myself on autopilot and kept away from certain exhibits. The hair room, with its mounds of brittle, faded matter, barely identifiable as anything human — I didn’t go in there, and I gave the hospital barracks a wide berth as well.
So why visit Auschwitz if your objective is to emerge untouched and unscathed, if you don’t want to be chilled to the bone, mourning the likes of Zalman Gradowski and cousin Regina and all the other relatives whose names I don’t even know? I did ask myself that. I came up with a few answers, a few tags: respect, reclamation — the two R’s of Auschwitz. That was part of it, along with a sense of defiance, two fingers up to those Nazis. Mainly though, I came because the idea of being there scared me, and it seemed important to face that down.
I thought I had succeeded. I had kept myself intact, wilfully unmoved and un-scared, but I had forgotten something: I had forgotten we were going to sing.
When you sing, you need to put your whole self into it. You have to open up, give in to the process of creating this sound, conveying the passion of sound. You have to see, feel and understand. In other words, you have to do the exact opposite of everything Zalman Gradowski forced himself to do.
We stood on a small rise next to Crematorium One –the same crematorium where the ‘44 revolt began — and we took out our music. I couldn’t see the notes or the words. My throat had closed up. I was not thinking about thugs, Nazi or otherwise. The slope threw us off-balance and tilting precariously, we sang Enosh to all the innocents who had come to Auschwitz, then and now.