A Sudden Spate of Women’s Holocaust Memoirs

SMOKE OVER BIRKENAU by Liana Millu. translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Jewish Publication Society, 1992. $19.95).

I REMEMBER NOTHING MORE: THE WARSAW CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL AND THE JEWISH RESISTANCE by Anna Blady Szwajger, translated by Tasja Darowska and Danusia Stok (Simon and Schuster. 1992, $10.00).

WHY MY FATHER DIED: A DAUGHTER CONFRONTS HER FAMILY’S PAST AT THE TRIAL OF KLAUS BARBIE by Annette Kahn. translated by Anna Cancogni (Summit Books/Simon and Schuster. 1992. $19.95).

The pull of memory cannot be pushed aside forever. Thus it is that half a century after Auschwitz, Treblinka. Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and the other death camps, there is suddenly a storm of memoirs by women survivors. Why now and not earlier? It seems that after the war only the repression of memory allowed many of these survivors to create new lives in joy (the will to forget can be as strong as the need to remember). Fifty years later, memory is demanding its due.

All of the many newly published memoirs (see sidebar) speak with a special power, but each of the three reviewed here represents a different aspect of life during the Holocaust and dramatizes the ways in which women’s experiences differed from men’s.

On one level, the difference is emotional. As mothers or would-be mothers, these women mourn their forfeited children, both real and longed for, as lost connections to future generations and, ultimately, to the possibility of any future at all. Each book discusses this loss from a slightly different perspective, and each leaves us with a different sense of personal heroism amid catastrophic anguish. Liana Millu dramatizes the plight of pregnant women doomed simultaneously to give birth and to watch their children begin to die, and Anna Blady Szwajger speaks as a pediatrician who comes to feel, at the Warsaw Ghetto’s bleakest moment, that life itself is no longer a gill worth giving to any child. As a child of a Resistance fighter who died in the Holocaust, Annette Kahn mourns that she was never a daughter.

In his introduction to Liana Millu’s Smoke Over Birkenau, Primo Levi points to other specifically female Holocaust experiences: “For a variety of reasons, the women’s situation [at Birkenau] was a good deal worse than that of the men: first, less physical endurance, coupled with work more arduous and degrading than the labors imposed on the men; the agonies of disrupted families, and above all the haunting presence of the crematoria, located right in the middle of the women’s camp, inescapable, undeniable, their ungodly smoke rising from the chimneys to contaminate every day and every night, every moment of respite or illusion, every dream and timorous hope.”

Anna Blady Szwajger, who served as a physician in the Warsaw Ghetto, explains the belatedness of her memoirs at the very beginning of her book, I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance : “I have myself to blame that only now am I writing v.’hen so many years have passed and so many things have faded from my memory,” she explains in a tone both apologetic and defensive. “But immediately after the war I decided not to write anymore. Never. What had happened wasn’t something to be written about, or read; at least, that’s what I thought. And to write about other, every day, pre-war matters didn’t make sense. So—better nothing. And maybe I thought—had a faint hope—that if I remained silent. I’d manage to forget at least some of it and be able to live like everybody else.”

But, finding herself old and ill, Szwajger was forced to confront memory at last: “There, on a hospital bed, I started to write. Quickly. To win the race against last day, as the Nazis began transporting the last patients to the cattle cars, Szwajger could no longer bear the thought of the greater suffering that lay ahead for her young patients. In an agonizing decision that continues to haunt her. Szwajger and her colleagues “saved” the remaining children, administering lethal doses of morphine to provide them with at least one final dignity—a peaceful death.

With no time to mourn, only to act, Szwajger quickly joined the Jewish underground and helped organize an illegal hospital. When the Gestapo closed that as well, she found other ways to provide medical care. Sometimes that meant performing illegal abortion, even on herself. “Who knew better than I that children had no right to be born’?. . . It seemed to me, and it still seems to me, that anything is better than the loss of a child, a living child.” At one point Szwajger attempted suicide, but even today refrains from remembering that in too much detail.

After forty years of “normal” pediatric practice in post-war Poland. Szwajger writes, “Somewhere underneath I thought that I had no right to carry out my profession. After all. one does not start one’s work as a doctor by leading people not to life but to death.” Her final, agonized cry may be that of every survivor: “Maybe it was too heavy a burden for the rest of my life.” For myself, reading the gritty details. I seek a stronger word than heroine to describe Szwajger.

The case of Liana Millu’s Smoke Over Birkenau presents a slightly different confrontation with memory. Written over forty years ago and apparently well known in Italy, it has taken this long to find an American publisher. Perhaps the need to repress the knowledge of evil can be as strong among readers as among survivors themselves. In Smoke Over Birkenau , Liana Millu takes us into the dark interior of the camps themselves, where the dilemmas are grimly similar to .Szwajger’s.

A Jewish Italian journalist who turned partisan fighter after the onset of Mussolini’s racial laws. Millu was captured and sent to Birkenau an 1944 at the age of twenty-four. “Today I realize that I owe my salvation to the fact that I already considered myself as good as dead.” she writes. “I was resigned, and that allowed me to do the unthinkable, such as look around, seek out a blade of grass amid the mud. marvel at the colors of the dawn.” That sense of resignation, combined with Millu’s acute powers of observation, yields an extraordinary account.

Each chapter recounts the story of a momentary friend or confidante amid the unremitting labor and gruesome inhumanity of the surrounding death camp. As Millu listens to each of these women unburden her soul, both teller and listener begin to see a fleeting glimpse of hope, another small reason to live — reasons that are particular to these individual women but become, in Millu’s vision, universal to all women.

When Maria, already seven months pregnant, reveals her determination to give birth to her child, no matter what the cost, Millu reflects, “Of course she wanted to give birth, it was an irresistible law of nature—but were the laws of nature still valid in a death camp? She refused to sacrifice her right to be a mother. . . but why give birth to a creature who was doomed to feed the flames?” Ultimately, inevitably, both mother and child do feed those flames, but not without first providing the other women in the camp with a glimmer of hope, even the possibility of joy. amid the despair.

The bonds of motherhood become the intertwined threads of life and death for other inmates as well. Bruna, whose thirteen-year-old son Pinin is also an inmate at Birkenau. starves herself in order to “organize” warm clothing and smuggle extra food rations to her son. Self-deprivation gives her reason to live; when she learns that Pinin has been “selected” for the ovens, she loses the last remaining reason for her survival. She uses her remaining energy to achieve one final goal — to hold her beloved son in a tight, suicidal embrace across the camp’s electrified fence, “the mother resting her head on the son’s, as if to watch over his sleep.”

In simple, straight forwardly lyrical language, Millu dramatizes a nightmare world where euthanasia, suicide, and survival are more than philosophical questions; they are the stuff of everyday life. Thus. Millu also shows how the quest for survival could turn otherwise chaste women into whores. Eighteen-year-old Lotti justifies her decision to join the camp’s prostitute kommando this way: “I refused to be consumed and vanish like a cloud… I can feel how disgustingly wrong it is that I should have to die because I couldn’t steal soup or I had no cigarettes to trade for bread, while other people who weren’t as good as me, who might have committed crimes or led wicked lives, would somehow manage to survive.” But one woman’s rationale is another’s shame, and Lotti’s upright older sister Gustine uses her dying breath to condemn her sister, to whom she once clung for life, as worse than dead — degraded.

In these and other stories, Millu does not flinch from describing what she saw, nor does she attempt to judge: One young widow seeks redemption by giving up her own life to help a man who resembles her dead husband to escape. Another woman, uncertain of her husband’s fate, finally concludes that adultery is a small price to pay for survival.

Each woman searches for the “right” answer. But in the death world of the camps, could there have been an ethical, “right” choice for any of these women? Millu’s vision is objective, but it is not cold. She shows us how, victimized and traumatized, she and the inmates who worked, lived and died beside her did what they could. By refusing either to condemn or to glorify, she allows us to understand, to identify, and finally to look within ourselves—for answers that are not there.

In a somewhat different vein, Annette Kahn acts as both personal witness and historian in her masterful retelling of her family’s ordeal, Why My Father Died: A Daughter Confronts Her Family’s Past at the Trial of Klaus Barbie.

Kahn, a French legal journalist, had few memories of her father, who had left home to fight for the Resistance before she turned three and, soon after, was captured by the Gestapo, tortured, then murdered in a group massacre ordered by Klaus Barbie, “the Butcher of Lyon,”

The details—known only in outline— had seemed unreal to her. And perhaps not knowing more had become a way of keeping the few memories she did possess secretly alive within her. Then Barbie was extradited to France for trial in 1987, and Kahn found herself suddenly embarking upon a dual journey, covering the daily events of the Barbie trial for her job and at the same time uncovering, for her own sake, the full story of her father.

Kahn deftly intercuts past and present, shifting between the courtroom drama of Barbie’s trial and the more personal tragedy of her father’s death. Each story by itself would have been enough. But by placing the particular anguish of one family against the larger landscape of Barbie’s reign of terror, she presents a devastating perspective.

“I have come out of the Barbie trial a different person,” she concludes. “Thanks to the trial, and to this book, I have finally gotten to know my father. I have taken the faint memory of a man, a mere fistful of dust, and lent him substance.”

In this way, she has attempted both to heal herself and to forge a newly found connection between the generations lost to the Holocaust and those that continue to live and will continue after her. Thus, finally, her document, like Millu’s and Szwajger’s and all the others, becomes part of our communal memory—a testimony that, once born, we cannot allow to die. For as each of these heroines of the Holocaust attests, memory itself is life.

Diane Cole is the author of After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.