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History is preserved in the memories of Holocaust survivors and the imaginations of their children, the so-called Second Generation. Nothing Makes You Free considers the heritage of the descendants of those who faced the horrific lie that adorned the gates of many German concentration camps: "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work makes you free"). Gathered here are writings both fictional and...
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History is preserved in the memories of Holocaust survivors and the imaginations of their children, the so-called Second Generation. Nothing Makes You Free considers the heritage of the descendants of those who faced the horrific lie that adorned the gates of many German concentration camps: "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work makes you free"). Gathered here are writings both fictional and nonfictional, ranging from farce to fantasy to brutal realism, from an international selection of writers, including Art Spiegelman, Eva Hoffman, Joseph Skibell, and Carl Friedman.
BY CARL FRIEDMAN
Translated from the Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans
He never mentions it by name. It might have been Trebibor or Majdawitz, Soblinka or Birkenhausen. He talks about "the camp," as if there had been just one.
"After the war," he says, "I saw a film about the camp. With prisoners frying an egg for breakfast." He slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand. "An egg!" he says shrilly. "In the camp!"
So camp is somewhere where no one fries eggs.
* * *
Camp is not so much a place as a condition. "I've had camp," he says. That makes him different from us. We've had chicken pox and German measles. And after Simon fell out of a tree, he got a concussion and had to stay in bed for weeks.
But we've never had camp.
* * *
Most of the time he drops the past participle for convenience. Then he says, "I have camp," as if the situation hadn't changed. And it's true, it hasn't. He still has camp, especially in his face. Not so much in his nose or his ears, although they're big enough, but in his eyes.
* * *
I saw a wolf in the zoo once, with eyes like that. He was pacing back and forth in his cage, up and down and up and down, to the front and back again. I spent a longtime staring at him through the bars.
Full of worry, I went to look for Max and Simon. They were hanging over the railings around the monkey rock, laughing at a baboon throwing pebbles.
"Please, come and look at the wolf," I said, but they weren't interested. Only when I started to cry did Max reluctantly turn away and follow me.
"Well?" he said in a bored voice when we were standing in front of the wolf's cage. "What's the matter with him?"
"He has camp!" I sobbed. Max glanced through the bars.
"Impossible," he said. "Wolves don't get camp."
Then he pulled me by the hand. I had to go back to the monkeys with him.
When we got home and my mother saw my tear-stained cheeks, she asked what had made me unhappy. Max shrugged.
"She isn't big enough yet for the zoo."
Max is drinking from a puddle. He's lying flat in the mud, sucking the brown water up through a straw.
"What does it taste like?" we ask impatiently. But he shuts his eyes contemptuously and goes on sucking.
"You little pig!" my mother calls from afar. "You'll make yourself sick!"
We have to go inside, even Simon and I, although we haven't had our turn at tasting yet.
During the night, Max complains about feeling sick. He clutches his stomach and groans, "I must have swallowed worms. I can feel them wriggling!"
* * *
You don't get camp from drinking muddy water. You don't get camp from playing outside without your coat on or from never washing your hands. I don't know how or why my father got camp. Maybe he got it because he's different from most of the people I know. Because he's different, my mother is different, too. And because the two of them are different, Max, Simon, and I are different from ordinary children. At home you don't notice it, but at school you do.
* * *
"A man flying through the air!" The teacher smiles as she bends over my drawing.
"He isn't flying," I tell her, "he's hanging. See, he's dead, his tongue is blue. And these prisoners have to look at him as a punishment. My father is there, too. Here, he's the one with the big ears."
"That's nice," says the teacher.
"It's not," I say. "They're starving and now they have to wait a long time for their soup." But she's already moved on to the next desk.
"Two pixies on a toadstool," she calls out, clapping her hands. "That's really nice!"
In a rage I make great scrawls across my drawing and turn the paper over. What's so nice about a couple of pixies? I draw a whole lot more than two: five in the snow and one on top of the watchtower.
He doesn't have camp only in his face but in his fingers, too. They often drum nervously on the edge of the table or on the arms of his chair.
And he has camp in his feet. In the middle of the night his feet slide out of bed, carrying him down the stairs and through the hallway. We can hear him far away, opening and closing doors without ever finding the peace he's looking for behind any of them.
"Were you on the prowl again last night?" my mother asks when we are at breakfast. He nods. She puts her hand over his. "Ephraim," she says, "Ephraim."
* * *
Sometimes his prowling wakes us up. Then we go downstairs in our pajamas to keep him company. He walks around in circles while we watch him from the sofa. When my mother comes in, he stops.
"I'm keeping you all up," he mumbles. She rubs her eyes and sighs.
"Never mind," she says. "You're alive, that's what counts. You can dance on the roof all night as far as I'm concerned."
He bends over her. She nudges her forehead into the hollow at the bridge of his nose. Their faces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
* * *
One night Simon and I are woken up by loud thumps. Together we go to see what's happening. The landing light is on. We stand on the cold linoleum, blinking in its glare. The door to the main bedroom is open. My father is lying on the floor inside. His eyebrow is bleeding. Max and my mother are kneeling beside him.
"You take his other arm," my mother says, "otherwise he'll fall against the closet again."
They pull him to his feet. As soon as he's up, he jumps to attention and brings his hand to his head.
"Caps off," he whispers in German. He lets his arm drop to his side, then jerks it up again. "Caps on." There's blood on his fingers.
"No, Ephraim." My mother takes him by the shoulders. Max skips around the two of them like a puppy.
"The bell for roll call has rung," says my father in a voice I don't recognize.
"There isn't any bell here," my mother says, pushing him toward the bed. "You're home, with me."
When he's sitting on the edge of the bed, she turns around without letting him go and says, "It's all right, go back to bed now."
* * *
Deep down under the covers I start to cry.
"Don't be frightened," says Simon. "It isn't real. Papa's been dreaming everything, the bell and the roll call."
"And the blood?" I ask him from under the blankets. "Did he dream that, too?"
There is no reply.
"That's your third helping," my mother says to Max. "Make sure you leave room for the cherries." He nods.
"I could easily eat a whole pound of cherries, I'm so hungry."
"You, hungry?" My father laughs. "You don't even know the meaning of the word."
"Yes, I do" says Max indignantly. "It's when your stomach growls."
My father shakes his head.
"When you're really hungry, it doesn't growl, it gnaws. You're completely empty inside and as limp as a punctured balloon." His eyes grow distant. "You can't even begin to understand," he says. "We had to work for twelve hours a day or more, and all we got to eat was beetroot soup and a lump of bread. The beetroot soup was a sort of cloudy water which had never even seen a beetroot. Now and then something would float up to the top, but no one had any idea what it was.
"The soup was doled out by Sigismund the Flogger. Sigi was a Pole and much stronger than we were. He never lost a single ounce of weight in the camp. Every day he held back some of our soup and then swapped it for cigarettes. With the cigarettes he bought bread, goulash, blankets. He even had wool underwear.
"There was an enormous steel ladle hanging from his belt which he used for pouring the soup into our bowls. If anyone new dared to complain about the quality of the soup, he got his brains bashed in with that ladle. Then Sigi would point to the mess and say, `Be grateful! Now you can have meat in your soup, too!"
"And how much bread did you get?" Simon asks.
My father holds out his hand over the plates and the empty bowls and pinches the air. There's a narrow space between his forefinger and his thumb.
"That much," he says, "and even less later on. It was made out of flour mixed with straw and sawdust."
"Sawdust?" Simon makes a face. "Like Jonah's?"
Jonah is our hamster. Every week Max sprinkles fresh sawdust over the bottom of his cage.
"You don't understand," my father says.
He gets up, but the bread ration continues to hover over the table like a ghost. I look at it helplessly and feel a sudden disgust for the cherries my mother is serving.
How very lucky we are.
Little Red Riding Hood
It's a muggy summer evening. We're sitting in the garden making angels-on-horseback in the dark, turning our sticks patiently above the glowing embers of a dying fire. Thin slices of dough are folded around the end of each stick. When they are done, we eat them with butter and sugar. Max makes the most beautiful angels, mine are all crumpled.
"Tell us a story," says Simon.
My father doesn't need time to think.
"Right next to the place where we built that factory," he says, "there were woods. I'd keep sneaking looks there during the day, and at night, on my bunk, I'd plan the most amazing escapes. If I could only reach the woods without being seen, I kept telling myself, I'd get away for sure.
"Not long afterward I found out that the woods that were going to be my salvation were no more than thirty yards deep. And immediately behind them was the Hundezwinger, where they trained their dogs. Imagine if I had been able to get away. I would have run straight into the jaws of those bloodthirsty beasts!
"And beasts they were, believe me. I saw them tear prisoners to pieces more than once. Being so weak ourselves, we didn't stand a chance against them. They also got better food than we did, a kind of biscuit made out of crushed bones and blood. It wasn't very solid and tended to crumble when it was being transported. The scraps were emptied from the trucks into a dump at the edge of the woods.
"We went crazy over this stuff. While a few of us would distract the SS guard, by dropping a load of stones, for instance, others would crawl to the dump on their bellies to swipe some of the dog meal. That was dangerous for all concerned. Anyone dropping stones could count on a vicious beating. And stealing meant the gallows. We took turns with the risks.
"We hid the stolen dog food in the empty soup kettles that went back to the camp with us at the end of the day. We would chuck twigs, pine cones, and acorns into them, too, anything that would burn and get the stove in the barracks going.
"When we were marched back at night, the kettles were full to the brim. We made sure that the strongest prisoners, meaning those who had lost the least weight, conserved their energy on the way. Just before entering the camp they would take over the heavy kettles, because only they were able to swing them so nonchalantly, as if they were empty. They swung them to the festive accompaniment of the camp orchestra at the gate that welcomed us home like prodigal sons every night.
"Once in the barracks, we quickly lit the little stove and mixed the dog food with water. It was absolutely foul, covered with thick gobs of mold. When the brew came to the boil, the stink could drive you out of the barracks.
"Everyone was given a portion in his mess tin. I would hold mine at arm's length between mouthfuls to stop myself from throwing up. And I'd wonder then why I had risked my life for such vile slop."
"That isn't a story," Simon grumbles with disappointment. "That really happened."
"Do you want a story then? Okay, have it your way!" says my father. "Little Red Riding Hood is walking with her basket through the woods. Suddenly a vicious dog jumps out of the Hundezwinger. `Hello, Little Red Riding Hood, where are you going?' `I'm going to see my grandmother,' says Little Red Riding Hood. `She's in the hospital block with typhus.'"
"No," says Simon, "that's not how it goes."
Whenever Nellie goes to the toilet, she looks down between her legs. She's sure there's a crocodile lurking in the water just waiting to bite her. I'm not scared of crocodiles. I'm scared of vermin. What I'm most scared of is Willi Hammer.
* * *
"Willi was a Kapo, a work boss," says my father. "With a criminal record long enough to paper this room at least twice over. A German criminal who specialized in the raping of minors, but an expert at common assault and murder, too. He must have been about fifty. Bald head, low forehead, and a squint. A squinting caveman. He carried a chain with a lead ball the size of a biggish Ping-Pong ball at one end. He'd use it suddenly to lay into some prisoner chosen at random, and he wouldn't stop until the man was dead. Everyone shivered in his shoes when he was around.
"Some people-and there will always be this sort of person-sucked up to him. He would make them steal for him and sleep with him. When he got tired of them, their hours were numbered. I remember a Russian boy who worked in the vegetable garden and who stole tomatoes for him. He was in favor for a whole month, and Willi even called him Sweetie. One night we heard the boy screaming, panic-stricken, `Please don't send me to the gas chamber!'
"`What do you take me for?' Willi replied. `The gas chamber is far too impersonal. I think so much of you, Sweetie, I'm going to finish you off with my bare hands!'
"That man was one of the lowest forms of life, on a level with a stinkhorn. Only scum like that could get ahead in the camp. We were completely at the mercy of vermin like him. Willi made us pay for every last thing that had ever been done to him, for all his mistakes, all his humiliations, all his failures. No one had it in for us like Willi Hammer.
"He always picked on me. `I take a special interest in you,' is how he put it.
"In practice what it amounted to was this. Every night after work he would take me aside and beat me up. He'd leave the lead ball in his pocket and use his bare fists. Coming from him, that was as good as a compliment, a mark of affection.
"Though he clubbed other prisoners and sent them off to meet their Maker without a second thought, when he laid hands on me he raised beating to a fine art. He'd take careful aim and hit my most vulnerable spots every time. After he'd knocked me to the ground, he'd take a break. Sometimes he'd smoke a cigarette or file his nails, while I picked myself up and stood at attention. I never uttered a sound. I knew instinctively that if I did, he'd lose interest in me and go on beating me until he'd laid me out for good.
"At first I would bite my lips until they bled to keep control of myself. Later on, it was easy. I despised him. True, he could hurt me, but even pain has a limit. I was superior to him. That's why he hated me, that's why he beat me up, and that's why he was attached to me. Where would he have been without me? I gave him a purpose in life, he was as dependent on me as I was on him."
My father looks at his hands and shakes his head slowly.
"He succeeded in the end, too."
"How?" I ask anxiously.
"How?" asks Simon. But we get no reply.
"Vermin," says my father, "lousy vermin."
Excerpted from Nothing Makes You Free Copyright © 2002 by Melvin Jules Bukiet
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Note on Method and Category||25|
|"Camp," "Nice," "Roll Call," "Bon Appetit," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Willi," "Underpants," and "Animal"||33|
|My Little Pledge of Us||58|
|The Fate of Great Love||75|
|Down These Mean Streets||94|
|The Right Nose||125|
|"The Purple Jew"||136|
|Dancing at the Club Holocaust||182|
|Cattle Car Complex||196|
|from Writing the Book of Esther||206|
|Do You Deserve to Live?||219|
|from Lessons of Darkness||255|
|from Joemi's Table||263|
|from Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began||274|
|from The War After||279|
|Until the Entire Guard Has Passed||294|
|"Statement of the Officer for Accounts"||305|
|from A Blessing on the Moon||312|
|Letter from a Dogcatcher||321|
|The Gospel According to My Father||350|
|"The Protagonist Introduced"||357|
|The Library of Moloch||369|