Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora
Pierre Berg got nabbed by the Nazis in Nice, France in 1944. He was eighteen at the time. They sent him to Dracy, a holding prison near Paris, and ultimately, on to Auschwitz. He was in Ravensbrück when the Russians finally liberated eastern Germany.
I've read many --- possibly too many --- Nazi concentration camp books in my day. I want to remind myself, as if I ever needed reminding, that humans have the ability to turn monster ... and, in the process, not even turn a hair. I also want to be reminded that there are those out there who will survive any trauma, be able still to mix the grave and the good.
Berg is one of these. He lived through two of the worst camps by subterfuge, sheer animal deviousness, cunning, and youth. He also spoke four languages, and like the musicians and technicians and physicians and scientists who were trapped in various camps, found that their talents provided a life line for them, for they were necessary to the Germans in their need for ultimate control.
Berg was also able to survive because of his rage, a rage that these outrages could be put upon him. He was pissed that he got himself into this mess in the first place, in a snit that there were such a bunch of creeps in the world that could actually perpetuate this ghoulish violence on the innocent.
Even from reading the Preface to Scheisshaus Luck, I suspect Berg's rage, a true existential one, lives on to this day. "There's nothing I've perused or heard spoken by Holocaust experts," he writes, "that explains the sadistic cancer that sprang from the Nazi masterminds, spread so easily through their SS henchmen, poisoned the Kapos (supervisors) and underlings, then killed and maimed untold millions."
When you lived with that cancer day in and day out for eighteen months, no words, no jargon, no hypothesis, no historical context or philosophical noodling or religious rhetoric can adequately explain the glee or stone-cold soullessness in those murderers' eyes.
"No philosophical discourse will make sense of the memories of the innocent men I saw hung, beaten to death, shot in the head, or trucked off to Birkenau," he concludes.
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Much of the can't-put-it-down in Scheisshaus Luck is the detail. Clothing denoted each prisoner's status. "Pajamas" were the black and white striped uniforms of the prisoners. A green triangle on the sleeve signified a Kapo. Jews wore yellow triangles, political prisoners red, Jehovah's Witnesses purple, "asocials," black. The pink triangle signified a homosexual.
Prisoners did not use each others' names but the first three digits of the numbers tattooed on their arms. One old Dutchman "who wasn't very bright" had the number "175" Hundeertfünfundsiebzieger. The prisoners would amuse each other by asking him, "Bist du ein Hundeertfünfundsiebzieger?" "Ja, ich bin ein Hundeertfünfundsiebzieger," he would answer.
He never caught onto the joke. One hundred seventy-five was the number of the paragraph in the Nazi penal code that outlawed homosexuality, and as far as I could tell, Joseph was a simpleton but he wasn't a "pinkie."
It is this melding of the merry and the ghastly that sets this one apart from so many of the other holocaust books I have come across. Mixed with the brutal working conditions, the random acts of violence, the routine beatings, the casual murders ... there come moments of wonder, even beauty. In Auschwitz, Berg runs into a school chum from Nice. They lie awake all night in the freezing bunker, reminiscing about the girls they tried to seduce back in France.
The Puff was the prison brothel. Berg goes by, as always, looking in the cubicles for his sweetheart from Southern France, Stella.
Most of the couples seemed as detached as stray dogs humping on a street corner, except for one happy fellow who, without missing a stroke, gave me a wave and a big smile as I went by.
Above all, Berg's survival is leavened by his exasperation at it all. He is exasperated that the SS are so routinely brutish: "I had become numb to their savagery, and I hated them for doing that to me." In a tunnel in which he worked, to get past some strange looking weapons (presumably V-1 missiles), his Kapo told them, Zieht die Bäuche ein!" (Pull in your stomachs!)
Hell, he was the only one who needed to suck in his belly. I hugged the tunnel wall and squeezed by the freight. In front of me were flat cars loaded with the aluminum hulls that had so intrigued me when I arrived. These sixty-five foot hulls were fully assembled, making them look like metal dirigibles. I felt as if I had stepped into a Jules Verne novel. Did the Nazis want to send us "undesirables" into space, using our ashes to turn the moon into one big cabbage patch?
In April 1945, Berg and two others being marched to another camp manage to escape. They end up in the town of Wustrow. Their "pajamas" offered protection from the Russians, for they are a sign that they've just come from Ravensbrück. They find a dead horse, cook it up, their first real meal in a year-and-a-half. When the Russian troops come storming in, "they arrive like a horde of locusts. On foot, on horseback, and on anything with wheels --- Russians, Cossacks, Tartars, Ukrainians, Mongols, Georgians, men and women swept by. Because of the warm weather, many of the soldiers had shed their coats and shirts. Even women stripped to the waist, their breasts bobbing with every step."
With tears in our eyes and cigars in our mouths, Jean, Michel, and I cheered on our liberators, far into the night.--- Wendy Stein