MANY FELT that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 heralded the end of a “barbaric” 20th century, dominated by two totalitarian systems, Nazism and Communism. Hope for a more humane future took the form of an optimism bordering on childishness, with widespread predictions of an “end of ideology” or an “end of history.” But reality has shattered this hope and proven these predictions to be idle fantasies.
Soon enough, our global village was compelled to face a new, ferocious form of aggression: the mystical, militant terrorism of Islamist fanaticism. The savage destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks that followed in Madrid, London, Russia, Israel, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and which most recently culminated in Paris, gave the lie to myths of an emerging global modernity governed by mutual tolerance and a cosmopolitan respect for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement.
This eruption of terrorist violence coincided with — and in many cases served to propel — a wave of migration all across Europe, along with intense debates about the consequences. Migrants reaching the shores of Europe, in order to escape the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, have been compared to the Jews who fled the Nazi holocaust.
The current fierce debate in the United States regarding the new migrants recalls “the shameful way we responded as Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” writes Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, when “Americans feared that European Jews might be left-wing security threats.” Kristof reminds us that, “in January 1939 […] a two-to-one majority” felt that the United States “should not accept 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children from Germany”; as a result, the ship St. Louis was “returned to Europe where some of its passengers were murdered by the Nazis.” Unlike today, no suspicion of potential terrorism played any role in such cynical prudence.
It happens that a remarkable new book, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz by the Swedish writer and journalist Göran Rosenberg, offers a powerful reminder of the sadly abiding realities of war and extermination, survival and wandering, homelessness and exile, estrangement and resettlement. It provides a compelling historical lens through which to view contemporary issues of alien residency and new citizenship.
The book follows a tense and troubled trajectory in the destiny of the young Rosenberg couple, David and Halinka, both Auschwitz survivors, Polish Jews who settled after the war in Sweden and became Swedish citizens. Their son Göran explores in this intense and revelatory book the parallel between his afterwar life and his parents’ difficult rebirth in a foreign environment:
[T]he young man who will be my father alighted from the train on an early August evening in 1947 […] This is the Place that will continue to form me even when I’m convinced that I’ve formed myself. That’s the difference between them and me. They have encountered the world for the first time in an entirely different place […] and for them so much has already started and already ended, and it’s still unclear whether anything can start afresh here […] What quickly binds them to the Place is the Child, who happens to be me.
They lost the greatest part of their family during the war, and their Project is — and will be — starting and building a new life, making a successful transition from surviving to living. The book lays out their story and a history of their new Place, the new domicile of the migrants (new home for David and Halinka and homeland for Göran and his siblings). Even more important, it investigates the Time of the prior and the new biography of the survivors.
Their biographical nightmare started in the Łódź, Poland, ghetto camp that was liquidated in August 1944, and their ordeal continued in the long journey to Auschwitz. The bleak preliminaries are best expressed in the painful and cynical speech by the Jewish leader Chaim Rumkowski, on September 4, 1942. Rumkowski was given a German order to dispatch all the underage, old, and sick, a total of some 20,000 detainees. He urges:
Fathers and mothers, give me your children! […] I come to you like a bandit to take from you that which you hold most dear. […] We can save the well in their place. […] I share your pain, I suffer your anguish, and I do not know how I shall survive this […] A broken Jew stands before you. […] I extend my broken, trembling hands to you and implore you: give me the sacrifices! So we can avert the need for even more sacrifices.
The immediate response of the audience is a wave of suicides, and a new type of dementia: “They bark like dogs, howl like wolves, cry like hyenas, roar like lions […] the ghetto is a cacophony of wild noises in which only one tone is missing: the human tone.”
And then? “[S]urvival resumes, as if nothing had happened.” “[T]alk of nothing but rations, potatoes, soup, and so on!” notes the inmate Josef Zelkowicz in his diary. His next entry should also be remembered: “During the first twenty days of September the weather was lovely and sunny, with only a few brief showers.”
This terrible episode is followed by unavoidable and essential questions, which constituted an extreme challenge to the author’s contemporaries: “Can we say that Chaim Rumkowski sacrifices his soul to save the life of the ghetto? Can we say that he enters into a pact with devil?” These are questions that affect all Jewish (and other) leaders forced to collaborate with their oppressors, Nazis or Communists, in the hopes of saving some lives by sacrificing others. Such actions would be harshly criticized by posterity, which is perhaps too eager to serve as tribunal. Rosenberg’s own judgment on this complicated issue seems exemplary:
Much has been said about how they should have refused and resisted (as they did in Warsaw at the end, when it was too late anyway), about how they should have let themselves be killed rather than become accomplices in crime. Hannah Arendt calls their actions “the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” […] Primo Levi is one of the few who have earned the moral authority to express an opinion […] He immediately declares his reservations, citing the unimaginable moral challenge with which Rumkowski was confronted. […] [H]e can see in Rumkowski’s ambivalence the ambivalence of our Western civilization, descending “into hell with trumpets and drums […] forgetting that we are all in the ghetto […] and that close by the train is waiting.” […] Perhaps he’s just expressing his growing sense of powerlessness in the face of amnesia and indifference.
In September 1942, Chaim Rumkowski, chairman of the Council of Elders in the Łódź ghetto, is presented with a choice for which I can find no historical equivalent and makes a decision that I lack the authority and ability to say anything about. So I say nothing, I merely observe that in August 1944, the Łódź ghetto is still standing, whereas the Warsaw ghetto is liquidated.
The other side of the nightmare, the death factory at Auschwitz, manifested a very efficient process of extermination: “Of the 405,000 people given a registration number on arrival at Auschwitz, 340,000 die. Of the 67,000 Jews delivered from the Łódź ghetto […] 19,000 are allocated to a no-man’s-land between slave labor and gas chamber and left unregistered” — David Rosenberg, father of the author, among them.
[T]hey’re forced to sleep outside, or on the floor, or sitting in long rows with the prisoner in front pressed between the legs of the prisoner behind. Nor are they given their own spoons and bowls, which is a precondition for survival in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The daily starvation rations of “soup” must be eaten without spoon from a bowl shared by four […] A spoon and a bowl of your own is one of the differences between hell and paradise. […] By the end of 1946 there are still 250,000 Jewish survivors in European camps for displaced persons waiting for somewhere to go. […] The Jewish men from the Łódź ghetto who survive the selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the slave labor at the Büssing factories in Braunschweig, and the meandering death transport from Watenstedt to Ravensbrück, and the black hole of Wöbbelin, are virtually all transported to Sweden through the good offices of the Red Cross in the summer of 1945. David Rosenberg. Entered July 18, 1945. Passport control, Malmö.
This criminal odyssey of the monstrous extermination of Jews in a Christian Europe took place amidst the joyful sound of the “carousel” mentioned in Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Campo dei Fiori” — joy accompanied by music and play and the complicity of the “hot wind” that “blew open the skirts of the girls/ and the crowds were laughing.”
Yet Göran Rosenberg’s book is also “the brief stop” of destiny in the peaceful Sweden, a welcoming heaven for victims. It is a memorable post-holocaust chronicle, still with many implicit warnings for our global present, shaken by the conflict between a free society and a closed one, dominated by a rigid nationalist theocracy, belonging to a medieval dream of total obedience. The Swedish child of Polish-Jewish origin is the inhabitant of another planet: “He knows that Mom and Dad are Jews, and that he and his little sister are too […] And even if he doesn’t know what it means, he knows it has something to do with the shadows.”
Indeed, this shadow obsession will accompany the narrative to the end when it finds its terrible culmination in the shocking suicide of the wandering Jew who tried everything possible to tame his bleeding memory as a member of a hated and hunted minority — first as an inmate in the Łódź ghetto, then at Auschwitz, and then as a survivor, a migrant in transit, a resident alien, and finally a citizen of a democratic, civilized nation, ready to host victims of whatever origin.
Each phase of this troubled and turbulent trajectory opens a black window for the old-new shadow. David Rosenberg, the survivor, does everything in his power to gain a status of “normalcy” and forget the too long initiation into horror. He becomes a worker in a factory where his devotion and abilities are appreciated; the family moves from a smaller to a bigger apartment; life seems to improve, hope gains new stimulations. Despite the fact that immediately after the war, in September 1946, only three percent of the Jewish survivors want to remain in Sweden (while 45 percent dream of Israel, 28 percent of the United States, and eight percent of other destinations), despite the fact that they “speak the language of Strindberg with the accent of Mickiewicz,” the Rosenberg couple prefers to stay in the Place, and on May 7, 1954, David and Halinka become Swedish citizens. A much-desired victory over the past and over their uncertainties, a new beginning, rich in big promises and illusions, an open gate to a sound future of renewal and rehabilitation. An essential step in the Project of gaining roots in the new Place.
Still, “the shadow that follows you all will follow you into this paradise as well.” Even small warnings have a forceful impact on their knowledgeable sensitivities: “One winter’s day, some children throw snowballs at their kitchen windows and shout ‘Jews.’ […] The boy hears the snow thump on the window and sees his mother’s face go white.” Occasionally, something happens to thrust the survivor back among his previous peers “and their shadows,” and the decisive ugly moment cannot be delayed any longer:
at the factory in the changing room, you try to throw a punch at someone and this someone slams you against a locker so hard you end up with a concussion. This someone had wondered out loud what a person like you was doing among the ordinary workers. Why someone like you was not busy lending money or living off other people. Said he’d never seen a Jew working. After that argument in the changing room your headaches come more often. The headaches and the nightmares.
It is the beginning of the end, the new beginning of the new end. Medical treatment doesn’t seem to help, the shadows are dogging the patient’s every step, he cannot take the decisive leap from surviving to living. Shadows are catching him again and again; he is their captive. He even owns now a precious statement from the medical commission for German reparations claiming that his illness is due to his need/desire for financial recompense, not because of Auschwitz and its consequences. The repeated, resilient attempts to reach a new horizon, a new life, fail; the stubborn victim has to face, again, the almighty past.
On February 5, 1960, a Dr. Raabe certifies that the patient, on sick leave from his work since December 1959, proves a causal link between his ordeal under the Nazis and his nervous illness. On April 26, the disabled survivor is taken to the Sundby mental hospital, where he tries to tell the doctors that he worries about the swastikas increasing all over the world. After a while he returns to the hospital asking for electric shock treatment to overcome his difficulties, then he is found in the lake, where the shadows had freed him, finally, from his unbearable earthly adventure. In his last letter to his beloved Halinka, he explains: “I suffer the agonies of hell and I can’t go on.”
The chief physician at Sundby hospital concludes that the shadows that killed him came from outside, not inside. The German state was wrong, its victim was right. The shadows of this bloody past didn’t disappear with the collapse of the two European totalitarian systems, nor did the long-lived anti-Semitism disappear but has instead been revived now in too many places. Should we be surprised or even scandalized by the astonishing silence of the civilized (or not so civilized) world?
What was a “brief stop” for David Rosenberg, in Sweden, in a post-holocaust world governed by hope and subverted by old-new human shortcomings, is a much longer, ongoing daily life for his son, Göran, the symmetrical character in this journey to rediscover and bring to life the past. The confusion of the father’s posterity and the son’s present, which this impressive book addresses, features a mixture of contradictions. The central one, in my opinion, is between the longing for a hybrid, open-minded modern society and the impulse to identity and belonging, sometimes radicalized in a fierce fight for a mystical homogeneity and coherence of race, ethnicity, religious belief. This conflict can be compared with the dilemma in Adelbert von Chamisso’s old fairy tale “Schlemiehl — The Man Who Sold his Shadow”: should one surrender the inner shadow for a more prosperous and free life, or keep it as a sacred last refuge, inaccessible to outside influence?
The world we live in today faces a great variety of challenges, and is threatened by dangers of an incomparable scale. We may see, in the flourishing of fundamentalist terrorism, a new type of fascism, with its vision of a “superior” faith, hostile to any “foreigners” and “infidels,” ready to annihilate all of them. We may sense, in the cruelty of such a simplistic and violent ideology, with its murderous slogans, its beheadings and killings of innocent people, its massacres of entire populations, an echo of the horrors the Rosenberg family endured. The ardent pages of this book should stimulate a deeper spiritual and political reflection on all these acute and pressing issues.