Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz

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Memoir by Isabella Leitner, 1978

Isabella Leitner's memoir Fragments of Isabella (1978) is striking for its brief but powerful images of people and moments from the unreality of Auschwitz. Keeping her sentences simple and her chapters short, she poetically captures the depth and the horror of the Holocaust a sentence, a page, and a paragraph at a time.

One dimension of the Holocaust her memoir drives home most powerfully is the Nazis' assault on the mother as it unfolded on various levels. Leitner makes it clear that the Nazis set out to murder not only mothers but also the very idea of a mother. Early in the memoir, for example, she recalls the almost supernatural force of her mother's love as her mother gazed upon her with an eerie smile during the deportation of the Jews from the Kisvárda ghetto. "She knows that for her there is nothing beyond this," wrote Leitner. "And she keeps smiling at me, and I can't stand it … I gaze at her tenderly and smile back." Upon their arrival in the camp, she remembered, Josef Mengele selected her mother for death before they could exchange a last look of good-bye. And once in the camp the prisoners were engulfed by the murder of the mother: "The smoke was thick. The sun couldn't break through. The scent was the smell of burning flesh. The burning flesh was your mother."

In a one-page chapter titled "The Baby" Leitner brings out the Nazis' most profound assault on the mother: deeming the existence of the Jew to be criminal, these murderers of the human image made becoming a Jewish mother a capital crime. Therefore, the women in the camp were placed in the position of having to kill newborns in order to save the mothers. "Most of us are born to live," she addresses one such infant. "You, dear darling, are being born only to die … Your mother has no rights. She brought forth fodder for the gas chamber. She is not a mother." In keeping with her concern for the assault on the mother, Leitner ultimately understands her liberation—to the extent that liberation is possible—in terms of becoming a mother. Crying out to her mother upon the birth of Peter, her first child, she declares, "Peter has started the birth of the new six million." Jews were liberated, she suggests, not just by emerging from the camps but by becoming mothers and fathers.

Parallel to Leitner's expression of her relation to the mother is an issue of identity. It begins when her mother is taken away to the gas chambers, and it continues as she struggles to cling to her surviving sisters. Upon their initiation into the antiworld of Auschwitz, they are rendered unrecognizable to one another. "Within seconds," she writes, "Chicha is somebody else. Some naked-headed monster is standing next to me. Some naked-headed monster is standing next to her." This crisis persists throughout her struggle to survive and even beyond. For when she finally leaves Auschwitz to be transferred to Birnbaumel, she cries out, "Bye, Auschwitz. I will never see you again. I will always see you." At the end of her memory of the universe of the concentration camp, her despair assumes the form of this image eternally before her eyes, an image that assumes a voice of its own. Trying to rid herself of her despair as liberation draws nigh, she affirms what she feared from this new shadow self: "She tells me what I was afraid she'd say: ' I will live as long as you do. "' Thus Leitner reveals the extent of the Nazis' violence against the soul of the Jew: Auschwitz extends beyond the barbed wire to the very end of the survivor's life. Auschwitz is a specter that darkens every joy and lurks in every happiness.

And yet Leitner ends her memoir with a cry of joy and a return to the mother. She ends by becoming a mother, telling her own mother about the beautiful child she has had. His name is Peter, the rock: "You were the rock, Mama. You laid the foundation. Peter has started the birth of the new six million."

—David Patterson