The Girls on the Rail


What are those two whispering about?
Let's call them Ilse and Trudi. Ilse, fourth from the left in the photograph, has her hand on Trudi's arm in an intimate gesture, and they are exchanging a joke because Trudi is laughing, beaming with happiness. Was Ilse telling her about last night's lover, or the great party in the officers' mess, or perhaps she was telling her how the verfluchte Jew begged for her life?
That filthy Jew could have been my mother...

There can be no doubt that the photographer found his subjects amiable, that row of cheerful young women leaning on a rail in a rural club, against a backdrop of cypress treetops and a mountain landscape. A genial man on the side is playing the accordion for them, and another openhanded gentleman is passing among them with a tray loaded with blueberries, perhaps to sweeten their hard day's work.
Had we not known that these people were members of the Auschwitz staff, we might have thought that the photograph was taken at a workers' committee day out in the countryside.
On the face of it there is no great discovery in these photographs, for we know that the murderers maintained a normal life, that they possessed all the basic human attributes like lust and passion and heartbreak. Yet at the same time their lobe of morality had been excised and their human semblance riven. How could they be capable of abusing, slaughtering and burning in the morning, and dancing and making love at night?
The intellect can comprehend it, but the heart refuses.

Before my twins went to Poland two months ago, I asked them to look for the villa of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, who raised children and a dog in the camp, right in front of the crematorium chimney. I told them these people were not psychopaths or creatures of darkness, but human beings like me and you who committed those atrocities against human beings like themselves.
I uttered the words, I knew, and yet I feel that I have been punched in the stomach as I see the delight of those girls on the rail - apparently SS telephone operators - brimming with youthful passion. Was the photograph taken after a bus journey, during which Ilse and her SS officer - a married man judging by the ring on his finger - wove their romantic relationship and planned to spend the night together? Trudi is looking over her shoulder, perhaps she is curious, or perhaps envious.
Oh, the jolly life of Auschwitz...

And the album contains not one minuscule flash of regret or traces of a moral rupture in the face of the murderous machine of which they were a part with such elation. Missing from the photograph is Mimi, my mother and the mother of Shlomo my brother. For her, and the other tortured human beings, there was no room in the commemorative photographs taken by Karl Höcker. The heart and humanity of the photographer and his subjects were totally dulled, while the survivors struggle daily over and with the memory, and the pictures lying beneath the pictures are tattooed onto their secret nightmares just as they are woven in their new, rehabilitated lives. If I could speak to Ilse and Trudi - and at the same time spit in their faces - I'd tell them that Mimi has learned anew, if not to laugh, then at least to smile.

Published in Yedioth Ahronoth, Eve of Yom Kippur, 21 September 2007

Translated by Anthony Berries


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