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The Stutthof: a question and an answer

tower smTHE STUTTHOF—A Question:

I had a letter from Gertrud. She visited the archive of the concentration camp Stutthof. She saw the identity numbers my Grandmother and Aunt wore as prisoners there.

This information shocked me. Someone had a piece of my family that I didn’t have. I’d been working with my Grandmother’s notes of her experiences in Concentration camp and I knew a tiny smattering of what went on in the Stutthof. It was a place of unspeakable cruelty—extreme, even in the context of the Shoah. This was where Rudolph Spanner perfected the art of rendering human fat—pure Jewish fat.

Did this letter mean I had to go to Poland to see the numbers and inhale the place? It almost seemed indecent that others would see them and I would stay away. I didn’t know there was a place to go.

I’m sure Eva and Selma gladly left the rags of their uniforms, useless and hated detritus. Now I learned the numbers were enshrined: testimony to screams, terror, hatred, life-times missed and brutality mastered. They bore witness, confirmed history, recorded the sweat and soil and took people to places we cannot imagine with our intellect. They made the suffering and stories nauseatingly real, like the smell of the shoes at the Holocaust Museum.

I knew Selma and Eva’s story. But it is so hard to believe, even having known them and heard the stories from their own lips. Would I really get it if I saw these marks? If I stood under the timbers that held their dread? Wrapped in the gray skies that clothed them? Amidst the brutalized population that let this horror occur, that smelled the bodies burn in its own backyard and did nothing—or worse, was grateful for the relief from its Jewish problem?

I saw these things in Dachau. I felt the soils of Europe turn to blood beneath my feet, while my own blood turned to steel wire.

My Mother’s voice rose so quickly in my head. Laura said “No: it is wrong to spend a dime in such a place; wrong to support any industry designed to exploit this horror, however modest, or dignified. To contribute to the economy of a people that allowed this to happen on their soil? To support Poland? the Poles? No.”

“You knew your Grandmother and Aunt. Their story is the overcoming, not the labeling or limiting. Their lives should not be summarized by this helping of hardship they endured. This sore on our lives must be closed and the grip released.”

Their lives were certainly more than the three and a half years they spent in NAZI concentration camps. Their passion for life was not erased there; it was fulfilled here: they are the American dream.

But their role in history is probably as survivors of the Shoah; a teen-aged girl and a middle-aged woman who survived somehow by their wits, their bodily strength, sheer luck and mental fortitude.

Do I go? Would I go in search of completion? Or to find yet a new cynicism in this horror? Must I witness the lives and tears and blood spilled in that soil? Does my Kaddish need to come directly from the scar? Or do I listen to the voice of survival, of self-protection, of escape.

I didn’t yet know.

gas canister smTHE STUTTHOF—An Answer:

Here I am. I had to come after asking over and over before different audiences. Do I go? The answer came back yes, enough of this wondering. So I traveled for thousands of miles to stand here in the snow and the cold where my Grandmother and her younger daughter, Eva, found one another in 1944, after eighteen months of heartbreaking separation, amongst thousands of women penned by barbed wire into two groups, awaiting role call.

“Momma, you must come over to this side. You are with too many old ladies.”

“But I am afraid. The guard walks up and down with his bayonet drawn.”

Finally they worked it out. Another woman spotted her daughter in the group with Eva. The daughter slipped beneath the wire to join her mother while Selma slipped beneath to join Eva in the younger group. One slipped unwittingly to immediate death, the other to continued slavery, starvation, brutality, typhus, murderers, clubbers, dogs, possible attack by German or Russian forces, and the possibility of survival. But most importantly, the roll-call came out even.

This is a forgotten camp. It’s not mentioned in The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the books, the movies about the Holocaust. Yet in it’s wicked days and nights it was the hub of a huge series of camps across the Baltic forest. It was built as a place for Nazis to terrorize the Western Pomeranians and hold prisoners of war. Eventually it was honored by a visit from Himmler himself and it was promoted to concentration camp status.

The Jewish barracks were destroyed long ago—ostensibly to try and curb one of the many typhus outbreaks. Under a carpet of snow in a forgotten corner of Poland it doesn’t look like a scar. The soil is not even visible, let alone red with the blood that flowed here. It’s hard to imagine the thousands of people brutalized and murdered here. It’s hard to imagine the Red Army stumbling across a scene so despicable that the liberating army quickly hanged all the SS guards, male and female and photographed them spinning from their improvised gallows.

“Tea?”

“Please. Thank you.”

Quiet.

I walk this sterile snow-covered camp converted to museum and archive and I realize it bears no relationship to the camp or subcamp world Selma and Eva inhabited. No, not the world of the Haftlinge, the prisoners, hostages of a doomed war, insular and desperate. After two and a half years of hunger and suffering the new girl could still figure out the better side of the wire, the widow could still fear the end of a bayonet, and love and connection could carry them through.

I look at the index cards that were given me, one for Selma, one for Eva. The prisoner number is recorded and retrieved according to the perverse brilliance that planned, executed and filed this horror away dispassionately and correctly. There is no getting this story, this place, these places. Here, they waited in the endless roll calls, listening to Russian bombardment coming for them. From here there was no meticulous bus schedule to Gdansk, to civilization. After they beat the typhus they still had to lie their way free of the Russians and find their way home across a wrecked continent. But from here they began to begin a new life.

This place is hard to take in. The quiet courtesy defeats the anger that should be here. The snow is deceptively soft and clean. The bitter cold seems justified.

Today this place is about death, memorial, documentation. Selma and Eva defied that legacy and lived. I see now, that this place did not hold them, own them, or define them. They left this place behind.

My people—my two who survived this hell— left a Europe wracked and ruined with hatred. They left it so far behind that they became another people altogether: Americans. They swallowed a huge long-acting tablet that worked on them as they struggled to return to the country that condemned them, through the purgatory years before they could emigrate, during the anxious years of transition, and while fevers of illness and recovery awakened them. It charged through their limbs for forty and fifty years, turning their gaze to the fierce sun like strong yellow flowers. I did bear witness and I witnessed escape.

If you’re interested in more about this subject find a more journalistic account of my Winter 2009 trip.