JUNE 29, 2015
AFTER AUSCHWITZ — to paraphrase Theodor Adorno’s famous tag, to write a work of fiction about Auschwitz is barbaric.
What makes it barbaric is the fact that we live in an era of Holocaust denial. Ironically, neither the defendants at the Nuremberg trials in 1945 nor Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem in 1961 bothered to deny that mass murder by Nazi Germany was a fact of history, and yet today we are confronted by latter-day revisionists who question whether it happened at all. For that reason alone, it always is treacherous to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction when contemplating the events of the Holocaust, which is perhaps what Adorno meant in the first place.
The distinction between what can be proven and what must be surmised is crucial even in a book as earnest and accomplished as A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz by Swedish author and journalist Göran Rosenberg, translated by Sarah Death and edited by John Cullen (Other Press). The book earned Sweden’s prestigious August Prize and is the first of Rosenberg’s books to be published in English translation, an achievement that sure owes something to the skill of his translator, who is to be praised for her skill in rendering the author’s lapidary prose into literary English.
Rosenberg’s book is best described as a memoir within memoir, one narrative boiling up from the author’s own memories and the other one based on what he understands to have been experiences of his parents, both of whom were survivors of Auschwitz. At the very outset, Rosenberg cautions the reader about what he knows and what he doesn’t know: “I’d rather not speculate,” he announces.
But the author finds himself forced to rely on conjecture even when it comes to his own experiences of early childhood, and he is entirely candid about his dilemma: “So let me be honest about the hindsight, since it’s pervasive, inescapable and treacherous,” he explains. “Actually, to be perfectly honest, what I can remember of these events is fragmentary at best.” When it comes to the ordeal that his parents survived before he was born, he has no choice but to reconstruct a plausible account of an experience that is far beyond his reach. “I seize every opportunity to ask about the road from Auschwitz, since every road from Auschwitz is an individual miracle unto itself, as distinct from the road to Auschwitz, which is a collective hell shared by each and every one.” He writes:
Those who are on the road from Auschwitz are all exceptions, just as every road from Auschwitz is an exception. And since the few who reach the end of the road alive have rarely traveled the same road, it’s all too easy for the roads from Auschwitz to sink into oblivion.
Rosenberg had access to at least some of his fathers papers: a bundle of letters written to his mother after the war, personnel records from a postwar job at a truck factory in Sweden, the police report that was submitted when his father applied for Swedish citizenship, and his application for war reparations from the West German government. He also includes a few evocative snapshots of family members, heartbreaking because the smiling faces remind us that dark days are coming. Even so, when he ponders something as mundane as the return address on a letter, he is reduced once again to speculation: “As the sender’s address he gives R 369 B, Södertälje,” the author writes.
What kind of address is that? No street name, no name, just a code. The address of yet another barrack in yet another camp? Can a letter of reply really be delivered to an address like that?
This exquisitely wrought book is, among other things, a meditation on the workings of memory and history in one man’s life. But history and memory take on different weight and meaning in a family whose mother and father endured and survived the camps. When Rosenberg contemplates the simple fact that his mother and father, still separated after their liberation, were worried about each other, he realizes that “‘worry’ no longer seems satisfactory” and so he searches for greater meanings in a soaring sentence that faintly reminds me of Paul Celan’s iconic “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”):
Not when the weight of worry big enough to poison a world, has been concentrated into a single black drop of corrosive anxiety that’s forever poised above what is at present the weakest point in this still improbable, and therefore not yet quite real, connection between two young people who last parted on the selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I suppose any of our childhoods might take on the qualities of a fable — so it is for Rosenberg: the town in Sweden where he grows up is “the Place,” and he describes himself in third person as “the Child.” When he is given a box of hand-made alphabet blocks, it is “not just a Toy but also a Project,” and when he puts the blocks together, they form “not only the words of a new language but also the building blocks of a new world.” But memory always trumps myth, as when Rosenberg tells us that the specialty of the local bakery is a kind of bread called an “SS loaf” (after the name of the town, Södertälje Södra), “but that’s a loaf we never buy.”
Like many children of Holocaust survivors, Rosenberg was raised in a home where certain secrets were never mentioned: “Like Lot’s wife, people in your situation can go on living only if they don’t turn around and look back, because like Lot’s wife, you risk being turned to stone by the sight.” He understands that the family is Jewish, but he is never told exactly what that word means: “And even if he doesn’t know what it means,” Rosenberg writes of himself in childhood, “he knows it has something to do with the shadows.” So Rosenberg dares to compose a biography of his parents, drawing on the spare details that have been disclosed or that he has discovered for himself, and then fleshing out the story with his best imagining. And here, too, his methods of reconstruction, as well his frustration and self-doubt, are fully transparent. “So where did you get on the train?” he muses out loud, addressing a question to his dead father. “Can I write that you board one of the last trains from the Łódź ghetto to the selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau?” But he does not and cannot know with certainty, even after conducting exhaustive research of his own in the historical record. “I note down the exact figures and dates, in fact I scour the archives and sources for the exact figures and dates, because I want to reconstruct your world as you see it before it’s liquidated, and I need something to build it with, and I don’t know what else I can understand.”
Among the most shocking passages in the book, is one that describes how the author’s father, who suffered from severe headaches and depression after the war, is refused reparations by the West German government. His ordeal in the camps is acknowledged, but his injuries are denied. The German medical examiner concludes that David Rosenberg, “unlike most of his comrades in misfortune, seems to have survived his internment in the concentration camps without suffering any persistent consequences harmful to health.” For Rosenberg, who again addresses his father directly, it is a scene out of Kafka: “Dr. Lindenbaum writes that you’re ill because you want reparations, not because you’ve survived Auschwitz. In other words, if it weren’t for your cravings for reparations, you’d be entirely well.”
And now and then, Rosenberg manages to find an item of hard evidence so conclusive and yet so poignant that it brings a lump to the throat and a shiver down the spine. His father was fortunate enough to be spared the gas chamber at Auschwitz and sent to Germany to serve as a slave laborer. On April 14, 1945, David Rosenberg arrives at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a fact that is known to us because the author found the handwritten list of prisoners compiled by an SS man on that day, a list that includes his father’s name, prisoner number, date and place of birth, and the notation that he had been “delivered” to Auschwitz on August 25, 1944. “Of the documents from the slave camp archipelago,” writes Rosenberg, “it’s the only one I have that bears your name.”
No excursion into the black hole of the Holocaust can have a happy ending, and so it is with A Stop on the Road to Auschwitz. David Rosenberg, as it turns out, is yet another example of Primo Levi’s observation that “whoever was tortured, stays tortured.” But Rosenberg-the-son has acquitted himself of the charge that is implicit in Adorno’s cautionary aphorism. By drawing a bright line between facts and imagination, and by holding himself to the highest burden of proof, he has given us an intimate family chronicle that is also a document of the Holocaust, a conversation with a ghost that can also serve as testimonial evidence in the court of history.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. He is the author of, most recently, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright).