Stripes in the Sky: A Wartime Memoir (Strepen Aus De Hemel: Oorlogsherinneringen)

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STRIPES IN THE SKY: A WARTIME MEMOIR (Strepen aus de hemel: Oorlogsherinneringen)

Memoir by Gerhard Durlacher, 1985

Gerhard Durlacher, who grew up in the German town of Baden-Baden, lived through the initial years of Nazi rule. He watched his community and his family disintegrate under the stresses of prejudice and institutionalized anti-Semitism. Ultimately they sought safety in Holland, but it was too late. They were shipped in 1942 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Gerhard and his parents were separated. His parents were sent to the gas chambers; he was one of the camp's few survivors. Stripes in the Sky, published in English translation in 1991, is not only an account of the horrors he suffered there, it is a chronicle of Durlacher's personal mission to discover why the fate of European Jews was so persistently ignored. Why were civilian and military targets bombed while the crematoria in the camps were left standing? Why did a quickly constructed model camp so easily fool the German Red Cross and delay further investigation?

Durlacher was one of a group of 89 boys, between the ages of twelve and sixteen, assigned to Auschwitz-Birkenau men's camp B II D in 1944. Their would-be graves—the actual graves of four million others—lay just ahead of them when Dr. Josef Mengele, the mastermind of Nazi pseudo-medical experiments, separated them from nearly 400 others from the same lineup who were sent to the gas chamber. Whatever Mengele intended for them was never known; the war's end eclipsed his experiments. Stripes in the Sky describes the so-called "selection" drill, where each boy was made to walk naked in from of Mengele, who stood at the entrance to his barracks in his pristine SS uniform. After each boy told him his name, age, and hometown, he then received a life or death sentence.

The selected people were told lies, if they were told anything, about what awaited them. Also written on neat schedules were appells, roll calls at which prisoners stood outside to be counted for hours at a time, often in the rain or snow. At meal calls prisoners received a ladle full of dirty brown water called "tea." Chores included wagon duty, during which the younger boys were made to carry lumber to the crematorium—one log for each body. On one occasion they were forced to pull a wagon full of prisoners who were too old or infirm to walk to the gas chamber under their own power.

The survivors of this group of 89 started renewing their long-dormant ties in 1985, when Durlacher and Yehuda Bacon began a letter-writing and research project to track down the others, more than 20 in number, who were living all over the world.

Durlacher believes his survival in the camp depended on youth, his fitness, and his experience. He was liberated, critically ill, by the Russians, and made his way to Holland, where he married and had a family and ultimately became a sociology professor. It was only in the last ten years of his life that Durlacher began to write about his experiences, of which Stripes in the Sky was his initial memoir.

—Martha Sutro