There is a Place on Earth: A Woman in Birkenau (Questo Povero Corpo)

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Memoir by Giuliana Tedeschi, 1946

C'é un punto della terra (There Is a Place on Earth ) was published in Italian in 1988 and in English (translated by Tim Parks) in 1992. An earlier, shorter version of some 125 pages was published in 1946 as Questo povero corpo ("This Poor Body").

Tedeschi was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944. Her book tells of her experiences over the next 12 months, covering a period spent within the Birkenau camp, some months in the Auschwitz barracks, the forced march when the camp was evacuated in January 1945, and brief references to time spent in Ravensbrück and Malchow.

Two different styles of writing are evident in the book. The opening section is little concerned with narrative framework and precise contextualization; the aim is to convey the disorientation of a woman torn from her surroundings and dumped into an environment without understandable reference points. Sentence structure and language eschew a narrow formalism; words flow without immediate context, description is confined to snatches of time and place, the reader left to restructure sequence. There are elements of the lyrical, as in the book's opening words, a description of the death camp: "There is a place on earth, a desolate heath, where the shadows of the dead are multitudes, where the living are dead, where there is only death, hate, and pain. Surrounding the place and cutting it off from life are thick walls of darkness by night, and by day the infinity of space, the whistle of the wind, the cawing of crows, the stormy sky, the gray of stones."

Following the introductory section chronology determines sequence, although for the most part the author avoids detailed description of place, focusing on interaction between those of widely divergent national origin and culture—on conversation, tone, accent, and mood.

As the account unfolds, we witness the dawning understanding of the purpose of Birkenau, the shock of discovery that the imagined family camp is located in the crematorium, the recognition of death, the meaning of the flame that burns night and day, refracted through myriad window panes. At night in the crowded barracks Tedeschi hears the "noise of wheels braking on rails, the confused clamour of the wagons being unloaded in the dark, the echoing of orders and the shouts of Germans." Many of the passages are haunting, conveying great depth of meaning with an economy of words. Forced to attend a roll call in pelting rain, the captives return sodden to barracks, their clogs covering the floor with sludge, attempting vainly to dry clothes before the morning and only succeeding in impregnating the bunks with water.

Tedeschi is sent from the Birkenau quarantine block to the work camp, engages in senseless tasks carrying stones, then is assigned to an indoor work detail mercifully sheltered from the elements: her task is to rip apart an endless supply of shoes, separating leather and rubber, to be shipped to an unknown destination. Life becomes less onerous as she is moved to the two-story brick barracks of Auschwitz. After the Birkenau huts the new surroundings are spacious, the bunk beds wide, the lavatories fit for human beings—and the crematoriums are out of sight.

Conditions deteriorate in October when work runs out and she is sent to dig in sand pits—for nine long hours, each day, in the winter cold. The death march on which she embarks, the train journey to Germany, the movement from camp to camp, and her ultimate escape and liberation cover but 23 pages of text but constitute one of the features of Tedeschi's work—a powerful evocation of experience beyond the realms of human understanding.

—Andrew Markus

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There is a Place on Earth: A Woman in Birkenau (Questo Povero Corpo)

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