Friday, May 09, 2014

For Victory Day (the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union): How My Family Survived the Camps

Was micht nicht umbringt, macht mich starker:
What does not kill me makes me stronger.
Nietzsche said this about other things
Not this.

How did my family survive the camps?
Were they smarter, stronger than the rest?
Were they lucky?
Did luck exist in Dora-Nordhausen,
Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen?

How did my family survive?
They were young, my mother and father, in 1943
Twenty years old when taken as slaves.
No one knew my father was a soldier, a communist
So he was not shot
Or taken to be gassed.
My grandmother said quickly to the Germans
He is a mechanic; they needed mechanics
My grandmother, Soviet businesswoman
Begged and bribed the Ukrainian kapos
Begged and bribed the Germans, not SS
They took my father, son of a commissar
And shot the other men.

How did my family survive?
They offered no resistance
Did they collaborate?
Is complicity possible without choice?

They marched to Germany, working
Following the German army
Following the front
Digging trenches, carrying metal
These were the good camps, Kalinovka, Peremeshl
There was still food:
My mother recalls eating an entire vat of potatoes
Fouled by kerosene, discarded by the Germans, not SS
The treatment was not cruel, comparatively, not cruel:
In 1944, the Germans
Were as afraid of the Russian front
As the prisoners were of Germany
And of the other camps.
Where they went nonetheless
Where they were sent nonetheless.

How did they survive Erfurt, the selection?
My mother spoke good German
I see her now at the staging camp
Her keen wit dancing around the SS
Like her young Slavic feet
She was young and good-looking
Thin but good-looking
And the SS liked the Ukrainian Frauen.
On the cattle car to Dora
To the chimneys of that camp
My mother rode with her family intact
Thinner but intact
And ready for work.

How did my family survive?
Was it luck?
In Dora-Nordhausen
Where the air smelled of shit and gas
Where the sun rose but never shone
Was there luck?

The boxcar stopped
At the Nordhausen factory
The way out through the crematorium chimney in Dora
Here, my grandmother learned language
Wstavach, Stoi, Ren, schwein, Halt.
In Dora, where not to understand an order meant death
My grandmother learned six languages; after six months
My family could work, hide and ask for bread
In all the languages of Europe.
They learned English the same way.


How did my family survive?
When the Americans came, with chocolate and blankets
My father, six foot one
Was one hundred and twenty pounds
And still we were rich, my mother interjects,
Rich compared to the Jews.
A few months longer, though, a few months longer
We would not have been alive.

How did my family survive?
My grandfather, a teacher
Told this story:
When the Americans came and saw the camp
They invited the people to loot the nearby towns
Take anything, the well-fed soldiers said
My grandfather stood and spoke: We are not animals, he said
But we were, my father interrupts, we were.

How did my family survive?
Survive is not the right word.
I'm alive, my father would say, alive
Alive because I did not die; others died.


Keep breathing, he encouraged me in difficult times
Keep breathing.
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