When the dust cleared all the cities- Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow- had stories to share. Stories that pitted against their counterparts today reek of a hopelessness and horror, an emptiness and a stillness which makes it hard for you to believe that they’re real. Like Westeros’s medieval cruelty wonderland, the world that emerges from the fragments of stories that have poured out of the Germany-occupied-Poland of the early 1940s, it is hard to believe that such a whimsical, fickle world could ever have existed.
But the reality is stickier and messier because through the din, the only voices that ultimately reach us are those of the people who made it through. Not in one piece, because nobody could have survived the horrors of Schutzstaffel in one piece. Perhaps the reason Nazi Germany continues to be so fascinating, so terribly despondent and so inductive of faithlessness is that the horrors t beheld will never disperse or trickle to a mere stream. All of it just creates vivid impressions, images which are harder to erase even if all you know of them is through books and movies of recollections and the capabilities of a mind to create fiction out of half-known facts. Think then, of the people who ultimately beheld within their sight the scenes that make us shudder through the invisible wall of speculative imagination and fact-scourging. Think of the million and one things buried in the buzz of fleeting chaos as normalcy was slowly restored. Who do you turn to when the past comes knocking? Think of the possessions lost- trinkets and heirlooms and movie stubs and pretty dresses and cosmetics and utensils and scrapbooks and toolboxes and all the rest of it. Think of the half-roasted men and women, naked, shorn like sheep and marked not just on the outside with scabies but on the inside in ways that a good scrub cannot remove. Think of the children beholding scenes even adults cannot absorb without a rush of bile, of executions committed at the drop of a hat, of being thought of as a half-human, unfit for life and thus relegated to the slave bunkers from which survival would be a question of just ‘how long’? And most of all think of the walk of death all the way to an extermination chamber- a part of the Final Solution.
But the discourse adopted was so slow in revealing its absoluteness that it seems scary to look back now and think of how systematic it all was. And how horrifying. Here’s how it all went:
1) First there were the edicts banning Jews from enterprises, from certain areas and businesses. Starting as a subtle wave through the dark stillness of the storm yet to come, these orders were issued discretely- sometimes more outrageously but mostly in a subdued manner, and marked with a series of uprooting exercises that made people talk in hush-hush tones beneath the canopy of disaster but not yet strong enough to cause more than the occasional flare of panic before sensibilities flicked aside stories as rumors too fantastic to actually take place.
2) The slow cut-off was followed by the first raids and round-ups where people were asked, kindly to vacate their apartments within the minute. Left shivering to themselves, shriveled old men and women and children crying in their mother’s arms or separated- for there was no respite and all precious things were too be given up- jewelry, expensive silverware, gold, fur-coats, gilded watches. Nothing was impossible and complaints felt on deaf ears or on ears which turned make and slashed at you instead, forcing you to retreat. There were louder, more ostentatious attacks, buried hastily under the rug of complacency and fear.
3) With the growing war and distance, came the growling edicts and blaring announcements of ghettos where all Jewish people were supposed to report. Living quarters were cramped but properties had to be forfeited though anything you could carry off on your barrows and walk through the jeering crowds, could come. While on the inside, poorly constructed housing was established and privacy dismantled piece-by-piece, on the outside hate propaganda grew. As the ghetto gates closed, only labour and other skilled workers who were necessary to the war-effort were allowed to commute through. There was a lack of regard of any sort on the inside and the things that make life bearable were shut down, one after the other.
4) Then came the Kennkartes– identification issued to each Jew. If yours had a blue sticker on it, you were considered as safe and needed but everyone else was starting to get herded like cattle onto trailers going off to some distant place. There were rumors of places where mass-murders were executed and people didn’t return but there were official reassurances. Mark your luggage well, it will be sent on behind you. But the lies rang fuller because auditing and weighing was carried on in secret- rings and bracelets and clothes and even gold teeth still stained red were deposited to be auctioned off. Food inside the ghettos was scarce and existence barely sustainable but beyond lay a world of foggy concentration camps where things were worse.
5) Imagine the roll call because when they came to collect you at any time of the day or night, they flushed through the ghettos looking for potential victims. You were either of immediate use to them or you weren’t of any. Either way, there wasn’t much hope for survival because the flushing out was done without the least damnation about whether or not someone stumbled and fell, witnessed or withdrew. Dogs tore flesh and genitalia and breasts and pulled infants from their mothers and limbs until they broke off. The constant and gnawing fear of ‘you’re next’ was hard but perhaps it was worse to see your neighbours, childhood friends, parents, children, schoolmates, aunts and uncles shipped off into the unknown- to Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka.
6) And finally the emptiness would sting and if you were left behind, you were blessed but not really. There was work to be done and nothing would yet guarantee your survival through the harsh winter. If salvation was coming, it was never fast enough. And in the extermination chambers, people were asked to shed all their clothes and step into the light, following which they were pushed into mass, unmarked graves. Countless unidentified human beings with feelings and memories perished for the maniacal plans of individuals who bloated themselves into believing some false, half-concocted tale of Aryan superiority and here I am today, in 2014, unable to get these stories out of my head or lose the feeling that this world can never have a sense of justice whilst people perish, their stories abandoned, their truths untold, their existence turned into a betrayal.
Source: Mostly Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally. Review coming soon.