The number of books that center on Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp is truly astounding, but then writing is often used as a way with dealing with pain, conflict, and the inexplicable.
Elie Wiesel’s Night may be the most widely read memoir, and Primo Levi authored his autobiographical account, Survival in Auschwitz. Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is yet another endurance story.
The memoir that I chose was The Girl in the Red Coat by Roma Ligocka. Those who recall the harrowing black and white film of Schindler’s List remember the one splash of color: the little girl in the red coat, who tries to hide from the Gestapo in the Krakow ghetto, unsuccessfully. Schindler sees her walking on the street, and later, it is her red coat he recognizes among the pile of corpses. When Ligocka saw the film, she recognized herself as the little girl who wore a strawberry-red coat in Krakow. Her memoir reflects how her mother bleached her hair to make her look more Aryan, how people were shot in the streets next to her, how furniture and luggage were strewn outdoors. In fact, a Holocaust memorial in Krakow is an arrangement of empty chairs. She and her mother were harbored by a Polish family while her father was imprisoned at Auschwitz.
Naturally, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (originally entitled Schindler’s Ark) is the most recognizable of the novels set in Krakow and its surroundings. After Spielberg’s film was a run-away success, Krakow purchased the enamelware factory where Schindlerjuden worked and were saved; it’s a museum that documents the history of an enigmatic person who took over an Aryanized factory and came to be an unexpected hero.
The Violin of Auschwitz, a short novel by Catalan writer Maria Angels Anglada, is an unusual Holocaust work as it focuses on music and the craftsman who created a stunning musical instrument in the midst of misery. It is a touching novel that begins with a moving violin performance in 1991 and then tells the backstory of its creator.
As many Holocaust novels and memoirs that I have read over the years, none truly prepared me for a visit to Auschwitz. The dozens of “block” housing are brick construction; their permanence spoke volumes. The extermination of Jews, gypsies, communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, disabled, prisoners of war, and traitors was to be long-lasting and complete. A factory of death. Many of the “blocks” are dedicated to special exhibitions, too numerous for a single tour: the story of the Roma; the story of Belgian Jews; the story of Hungarian Jews; and so on and so forth. The typical tour recounts the arrival of those immediately assigned to the gas chamber and then moves into part two of those who were photographed and documented to serve as prisoners and workers. One hallway includes row after row of men and women, each one named with birth date, arrival date, and death date. In several instances, death followed a short time after their coming to the camp—even though the camp physician had singled them out for work.
The material goods of those arriving are on exhibition in yet another building: thousands of pairs of shoes, eyeglasses, combs, brushes, and even tins of shoe polish. Most sickening was the hair. Mounds, kilos, pounds of human hair that would be baled and sent to Germany to be made into material, rope, and other items.
We knew going in to our visit that this would be difficult. We have been to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and to other Holocaust Memorial sites around the world. Auschwitz is particularly grim. My husband’s father’s sister, her husband, and their two children perished here. They had remained because of business interests when their two siblings escaped—one to the USA and one to
Australia. David’s cousin, John Balint of Sydney, writes, “My Aunt Anne, Uncle Feri, and cousins Pisti and Rosalie were deported in June 1944 from Subotica in Serbia, where they had a business, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.”
The parents of the three siblings were hidden by friends in Budapest and survived the war; however, shortly thereafter, when they returned to their summer home on Lake Balaton in Hungary, my husband’s grandmother called out the names of the two grandchildren who had been killed, and then collapsed.
She is buried nearby, the parish priest allowing her to be interred in the church cemetery. Her husband survived, living with his daughter and her family in Australia and then eventually with his son and his family in Pennsylvania, passing at 97. His son took his ashes back to that small cemetery in Hungary.