Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land

views updated


Memoir by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, 1985

Translated from an unpublished Polish manuscript written in 1966, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk's memoir Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land, which appeared in 1985, marked the emergence of a penetrating expression of women's ordeals in the universe of the concentration camp. Exploring various individuals and incidents from that realm in a series of brief vignettes, Nomberg-Przytyk captures the horrific essence of the death factory. A skilled storyteller, she conveys the unbearable nature of her experience in a manner accessible to her reader, bringing out the depths of a will to live even within the confines of the kingdom of death.

One especially powerful motif that runs through the tales in Nomberg-Przytyk's memoir is the assault on the mother as the origin of life and of love in the world. She recalls, for instance, songs about the loss of the mother that were sung in the camp at Stutthof and in Auschwitz. She often refers to the phenomenon of the "camp mother" or "camp daughter," in which one woman took another under her protection. And she presents a beautiful, tragic portrayal of a mother and daughter in the tale of Marie and Odette. Perhaps the most devastating example of the assault on the mother is found in the story "Esther's First Born." It is the tale of a young woman who gave birth to a beautiful child in the camp only to be told by her fellow inmates that newborns in the camp must be killed in order to spare the mothers. Esther refuses to allow them to take her infant and goes to her death with her baby in her arms.

As harrowing as the tale of Esther is, the story in "A Living Torch" is even more so. Here the women in the camp are inundated with the sound of children crying out, "Mama!" as if "a single scream had been torn out of hundreds of mouths." As the children are sent to be burned alive in pits of flames, a scream breaks out from the women in the block. Nomberg-Przytyk ends the tale with a question that continues to haunt the world: "Is there any punishment adequate to repay to criminals who perpetrated these crimes?"

Not all of Nomberg-Przytyk's portraits of women in the camp are about bonding and nurturing. Images of something monstrous can be found in her memory of women like Orli Reichert and the infamous Cyla, who was in charge of Block 25, the block where women were sent to await their turn for the gas chambers. Cyla was one of Josef Mengele's favorites in the camp, and Nomberg-Przytyk's memoir contains several accounts of Mengele's words and deeds, including his explanation of why he sent mothers to their deaths with their children. "It would not be humanitarian," said Mengele, "to send a child to the ovens without permitting the mother to be there to witness the child's death." Such was the Nazi notion of kindness.

A question that recurs in Nomberg-Przytyk's memoir is whether or not new arrivals should be informed of the fate that awaits them. While the matter of giving people a short time to prepare themselves for their deaths is left unresolved, Nomberg-Przytyk presents a heroic example of such a preparation in her tale "The Dance of the Rabbis." Here the Nazis order a transport of Hasidic rabbis to dance and sing before they are murdered, but the rabbis—even as they are going to their deaths—transform the Nazi order into their own affirmation of the holiness that imparts meaning to life. This they accomplish by refusing to allow the Nazis to determine the meaning of the words that come from their lips.

Indeed, Nomberg-Przytyk is especially attuned to the Nazis' assault on words and their meaning and how the assault most profoundly defined the Holocaust. Realizing that the violence done to the word parallels the violence launched against the meaning of the human being, she writes, "The new set of meanings [imposed on words] provided the best evidence of the devastation that Auschwitz created in the psyche of every human being." Skillfully making use of words to remember this assault on words, Nomberg-Przytyk returns meaning to words in a way that not only attests to the kingdom of death but also bears witness to the dearness of life.

—David Patterson

More From