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After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they quickly began persecuting anyone who was Jewish. Millions were shoved into ghettos and forced to live under the swastika. Death camps were built and something called "Operation Reinhard" was set into motion. Its goal? To murder all the Jews of Poland.
The Commandant of Lubizec is a harrowing account of a death camp that never actually existed but easily could have in the Nazi state. It is a sensitive, accurate retelling of a place that went about the business of genocide. Told as a historical account in a documentary style, it explores the atmosphere of a death camp. It describes what it was like to watch the trains roll in, and it probes into the mind of its commandant, Hans-Peter Guth. How could he murder thousands of people each day and then go home to laugh with his children? This is not only an unflinching portrayal of the machinery of the gas chambers, it is also the story of how prisoners burned the camp to the ground and fled into the woods. It is a story of rebellion and survival. It is a story of life amid death.
With a strong eye towards the history of the Holocaust, The Commandant of Lubizec compels us to look at these extermination centers anew. It disquiets us with the knowledge that similar events actually took place in camps like Bełzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. The history of Lubizec, although a work of fiction, is a chillingly blunt distillation of real life events. It asks that we look again at "Operation Reinhard". It brings voice to the silenced. It demands that we bear witness.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Patrick Hicks is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Finding the Gossamer and This London. His work has appeared in some of the most vital literary journals in America, including Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and many others. He has been nominated seven times for the Pushcart Prize, been a finalist for the High Plains Book Award, the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition, and the Gival Press Novel Award. He has won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award as well as a number of grants, including ones from the Bush Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. After living in Europe for many years, he now lives in the Midwest where he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and also a faculty member in the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College. The author lives in Sioux Falls, SD.
Patrick's website is http://patrickhicks.info/
Read an Excerpt
The Commandant of Lubizec
A Novel of the Holocaust and Operational Reinhard
By Patrick Hicks
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2014 Patrick Hicks
All rights reserved.
The records show that some 710,000 souls died at the small concentration camp known as Lubizec. But to call Lubizec a "concentration camp" is incorrect because it was not designed to hold people as if they were common criminals or a threat to the Nazi state. No, it is more historically accurate to call this tiny area of barbed wire and train tracks an "extermination camp" or, if we are being more honest with ourselves, a place of overwhelming mass murder. Lubizec was a factory of death with one purpose: the swift and unrelenting slaughter of human beings. It was a place of mass annihilation, and it rested far beyond the frontier of mercy.
What remains of the camp today is on the southeastern border of Poland, and there is practically nothing left aside from a cement memorial where the gas chambers once stood. Few people visit Lubizec not only because it is so remote, but also because there is a serious misunderstanding about what happened there. Auschwitz is remembered because survivors managed to limp away from that wicked place and bear witness, but hardly anyone knows about Lubizec because it was an extermination camp. Of the 710,000 souls that entered its gates, only forty-three survived to talk about what they saw. This lack of survivorship is almost certainly why the world isn't as familiar with the camp as it should be. We simply don't have the stories to make it real. It is also very difficult to imagine 710,000 people and then see each of them being dead. How has this influenced the world? What might their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have gone on to do? Although these murders continue to echo into our future, the scale of this crime is, for most of us, simply beyond comprehension.
Even in the immediate aftermath of World War II, little was known about this place deep in the woods. Auschwitz was preserved by the Russians as proof of genocide, and the entire world became aware of it when newsreels and testimonies were released to the public. Lubizec, however, was plowed into the ground by the Nazis after the startling events of March 1943. The rebellion and escape surprised everyone, including the commandant, and it was decided to level the buildings and pretend that the place never existed. We have no photos of Lubizec, and this has made it a footnote in history books rather than a focal point. There are rumors of Nazi scrapbooks and some related photographic materials floating around but, as yet, nothing has been authenticated and determined to be from Lubizec itself. Much of what we do know comes from Chaim Zischer's chillingly blunt, The Hell of Lubizec (1954). Zischer writes about the murder of his family with such clinical detachment we quickly feel it was the only way for him to write about what he saw, and in fact, shortly before his death in 2009, he found it impossible to believe he was the last eyewitness to the camp. He was worried that Lubizec would be forgotten about, and it has to be admitted the writing of this book is partly prompted by Zischer's passing.
It is indeed odd to realize that Lubizec has now slipped into history, entirely and completely. There is no one left who saw carbon monoxide being channeled into the gas chambers, there is no one left who saw people being herded off the trains towards an engine that was ready to crank into a higher gear, and there is no one left who saw the commandant walk through the camp with his infamous ledger and pack of cigarettes. When we think of places like Lubizec, we are used to seeing black-and-white photos, which offer us comfort that such events took place long ago, deep in the past. But if we try to view this camp in color and allow ourselves to feel the sandy dirt beneath our shoes, to see the swastika flapping like blood on a pole, to see the guards strutting around in their charcoal-gray uniforms, if we do this, we might feel the camp lift itself out of the pages of history.
One thing is certain. All across the planet we are losing our eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and this book is an attempt to make Lubizec feel real (or as real as words can make anything feel). In so doing, the author hopes to remind people of these extermination camps and give voice to the voiceless. Little is known about Lubizec, but by talking about this one single camp perhaps a larger discussion may arise about other death camps like Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, which aren't lodged in the public imagination as fully as they should be. Perhaps this book will act as a doorway into somewhere else, and in that dark, terrible space, maybe we will be provoked to remember anew.
So how did this little spot in Poland become a site of mass murder?
This is where we shall begin.
It started when a huge drum of barbed wire was tossed to the ground — it wobbled like a monstrous coin to a stop. Hammers and crosscut saws were brought out of trucks. Men shouted and laughed as they marked off camp boundaries with little flags. They set up a phonograph and put the needle down onto some classical music. Fence posts were pounded into the sandy ground.
Lubizec was built five kilometers from the sleepy village that gave it its name and it was also near a major rail line, which meant it was secluded enough to keep prying eyes away but close enough to rail traffic to bring victims in. From the very beginning it was a place of secrets. It was a place hidden deep in the woods.
The first commandant was a doughy man named Wilhelm Fischel. He had the trees leveled, he built a series of guard towers, and on October 24, 1941, he accepted his first shipment of prisoners. They were mostly Polish men who refused to accept German rule over their country, and they were forced to build barracks for the SS who, at that time, were living in olive-drab tents. Other buildings sprang up, a latrine was dug, and rail tracks from the village of Lubizec were extended into the camp itself. Fischel had a small clapboard office built for his private use, and he made sure the SS had a bar stocked with excellent beer imported from Munich. All the while, more and more prisoners were stuffed into Lubizec and the food supply was kept intentionally low.
As they died off, Fischel had them buried outside the barbed-wire perimeter in a massive trench. Space inside the camp became an increasing problem as more prisoners were packed in. Fischel solved the problem by ordering each of his guards to shoot five prisoners a day. He didn't care how these selections were made as long as it kept the numbers down.
Things got much worse in April 1942 when it was decided by the higher-ups in Berlin that Lubizec would cease to be a concentration camp and it would become, instead, a death camp. Fischel began to drink more heavily around this time. He sat in his office and showed absolutely no interest in running the camp. He got sloppy with vodka and didn't care how his guards went about the killing — they usually hauled prisoners off the trains and began shooting them as if they were scurrying rabbits. Women clutched their children as guards opened up their guns, and as the sun grew hotter and hotter, and as sweat began to prickle everyone's scalp, the guards decided to let the new transports die of thirst in the railcars instead. It was easier this way. They kept the doors bolted shut while they waited in the shade. When the cries finally stopped, that's when they rolled open the doors.
Bodies were everywhere. They were dumped beside the rail tracks, scattered around like rag dolls. A thick meaty stench filled the air, but still Fischel drank on. His men called him "The Pickled Hermit," and word got back to high command that there was a problem at Lubizec. Whole trainloads couldn't be processed because the camp was so disorganized, and this infuriated SS Hauptsturmführer Odilo Globocnik who was in charge of exterminating the Jews of Poland. He drafted an order to replace Fischel with someone else, someone who knew how to manage problems — someone who was loyal to the Party and understood what it meant to have an ordered system.
Hans-Peter Guth arrived on May 27, 1942. He was in his early forties, handsome, in shape, and well rested. His copper-blond hair was misted with gray, and he liked to keep it clipped short. It was raining softly when his Mercedes pulled into the village five kilometers outside of camp. The dirt roads needed to be graded smooth, and the car bumped along through deep puddles of brown water. He ordered his driver to slow down so that he could see everything.
"Good Lord," he said, making a sour face. "What's that stink?"
The car lurched through ruts as they turned down a narrow road towards the camp. Old-growth pine trees launched themselves into the sky and rabbits darted away from the car — they scurried over decaying needles as Guth pulled out a cigarette and tried to light it. The wind made this difficult, so in frustration, he flicked it onto the road. Train tracks ran beside the car in blurry parallel lines of steel, and he saw what looked like sacks of wheat every few yards. He squinted and realized they were bodies.
"What a fucking mess," he said, shaking his head. "It looks like a war zone."
The car continued down a tree-lined road. Sunlight and shadow flickered on the dashboard, the springs bounced and creaked, and as they rounded a corner, the bodies increased. Flies were everywhere. They drove through huge banks of them. Once-beloved humans were putrefying in various stages of wet decomposition and the smell of rotting flesh curdled the air. Guth covered his nose. The smell of aftershave was still on his fingertips and he breathed in.
"Astonishing," he said, shaking his head. "Just astonishing."
His car — long, shiny, the color of coal and midnight — turned and drove next to the tracks for another kilometer. The bodies increased and they looked like cast-aside marionettes, as if their strings had been cut. The camp hove into view and Guth looked through the windshield as they bounced down the unpaved road. The Mercedes came to a rolling stop in front of a red-and-white pole barricade that looked vaguely like a huge candy cane. Inside the camp, men shuffled around with shovels and Guth watched as a guard hit them with a rubber truncheon. The stink was overpowering. It crawled into his nose and made him blink a few times. He cleared his throat and tried to focus.
The driver got out, ran around the black snout of the car, and opened the door with a quick snap and a Hitler salute. "Welcome to Lubizec, sir."
The commandant got out and stretched.
Sunlight glinted off the chrome of his car and the engine clicked as it cooled. Guth did a slow turn on the sandy gravel and glanced at the dead — the inconvenience of them — and he wondered how to solve the problem of their presence. Flies circled his head in a buzzing peppery cloud and he shooed them away with a leather glove.
"Fischel ought to be hanged for this."
He looked down the rail tracks, which disappeared like a long iron needle into the trees. Swollen bodies were everywhere. Maggots jittered in open wounds. Ravens orbited overhead; they cawed as dark clouds began to roll in. Rain was on the horizon.
"It's like a battlefield around here," he said, using his foot to nudge an arm out of the way. "Or like something out of Dante's Inferno."
An SS guard stumbled around the corner with a bottle of vodka and wobbled on unsteady legs. His uniform wasn't buttoned properly, it was cockeyed, lopsided, and this made Guth angry for the first time all morning.
The man with the bottle tried to come to attention but he stood like a wet shirt on a hanger.
"Are you drunk?"
There was a burp, then a giggle.
Guth's face hardened into marble. He turned to his driver and said, "Take my things to the office and telegram my wife. Tell her I've arrived safely." There was a brief pause as he looked around. "There is an office in this place, yes?"
"Good. Good. Now send that telegram."
The drunk realized who was in front of him and dropped the bottle. He offered up a sloppy Hitler salute as clear liquid glugged and flopped onto the sandy ground. The candy cane pole barricade was still down, and although Guth had not yet entered the camp, he could see inside.
Another guard came out of a wooden building and yelled at a prisoner who was moving too slowly. He had the gray man in dirty clothes lie on the ground as he pulled out his pistol. The guard took careful aim at the man's head — he straightened his arm and locked his elbow. Crack. It was a cool and clean shot, echoing. The guard was as dispassionate as if he had kicked a stone down the road and was pleased to see its trajectory. The guard holstered his weapon and began to stroll away.
"You there," Guth half shouted. "Yes, you. I'm talking to you."
The guard adjusted his SS cap and walked over as if he had all the time in the world. It began to rain and large splats of water darkened his gray uniform. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
"What are you doing?"
The guard looked at the swollen bodies dumped everywhere around them and began to stammer. "I was — I was — sorry, sir. I — I don't understand the question."
"If you're going to shoot these creatures, don't leave their bodies lying around. Clean that mess up."
The guard paused.
"Do it now."
The guard turned on his heel but Guth whistled for him to stop. "One more thing."
"Shave your face. This isn't a holiday resort."
And with that, the barricade was raised and Hans-Peter Guth entered Lubizec.
During the next few weeks the bodies of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, students, rabbis, shopkeepers, musicians, and poets were gathered up. A long trench was dug. Guth stood back as exhausted, thirsty, and ragged prisoners shoveled down into the sandy soil. Limp bodies in various stages of decomposition were fitted like herrings into the raw earth. Lime was scattered onto their chests and heads as still more bodies were dragged over. Guth sometimes pointed at prisoners who worked too slowly or paused to wipe sweat from their foreheads, and whenever this happened they were tossed into the trench and shot.
While it is tempting to speculate on what Guth was thinking during all of this, we should never lose sight of the prisoners working at a fever pitch around him. We need to imagine a thin man (perhaps, let us say, a man who had been a doctor before the war) and we need to imagine him stumbling around over chests and arms and legs. His shoes sink into the layered dead. He trips often and has to hold out his arms — like a tightrope walker — to balance himself. Now let us imagine that his job is to arrange these bodies just so, and he knows that if he slows his frantic pace for any reason, or if he stands up to stretch, or if he pauses to catch his breath, he will be shot. What would this man think as Guth strolls along the lip of the trench, ledger in hand, the blue sky framing his silhouette? What would he think as Guth yells out, "I want everything clean and tidy. Ordered, yes? Good. Good."
We can only guess what this hypothetical prisoner was thinking because no one survived this early period of Lubizec's history. They were all murdered. This is a problem because when historians talk about the early days of Lubizec the only testimony we have comes from the Nazis themselves, and this is what makes the beginning of Lubizec so heartbreaking to bear. We want a character we can believe in, we want some nugget of truth to ponder, we want a glimmer of light amid the overpowering darkness of this extermination camp, and, more than anything else, we want to hope.
These are all perfectly reasonable desires for a world living safely beyond the gravitational field of Lubizec, but we are talking about a death camp and our expectations of narrative arc have to be readjusted and retooled in the face of so much murder. The year is 1942 and the war is far from over. In fact, the Nazis are in total control and they are tossing lives into the abyss at breathtaking speed. Although we may want the story of Lubizec told from the perspective of the victims, at this early stage in the camp's history this is impossible to do. Stories of survivorship will come later, but for now, we can only approach this death camp through the eyes of the perpetrators. All other viewpoints have been erased. Snuffed out. Covered in lime.
Excerpted from The Commandant of Lubizec by Patrick Hicks. Copyright © 2014 Patrick Hicks. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Other Books by This Author,
2. Life in a Death Camp,
3. The Villa,
4. The Good Men of Barrack 14,
7. Trouble at Home,
8. The Road to Lubizec,
9. The Roasts,
10. Old Shatterhand,
11. While Others Step into the Darkness,
13. The Visit,
15. Gas and Burn,
17. What Happened in the Rose Garden,
18. Before the Storm,
19. The End of this World Begins Now,
20. Shifting to Auschwitz,
Reading Group Guide,
About the Author,