Chronicle of Higher Education,February 18, 2005
By DEBORAH E. LIPSTADT
Chronicle of Higher Ed
In late December I received a call from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel asking if I would be part of a small American delegation representing the president and the nation at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The dates fell smack at the beginning of the semester. I am loath to miss classes. Nonetheless, I decided that this merited the absence, and my dean agreed.
The delegation, which was being led by Vice President Dick Cheney, included Elie Wiesel; U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos and his wife, Annette, both Holocaust survivors; Fred Schwartz, who had spearheaded the rebuilding of a synagogue in the town of Auschwitz; Feliks Bruks, a Polish American who had been imprisoned by the Nazis in three concentration camps; and me. When I asked the White House official why I had been included, she explained that it was because of my work, especially my legal travails, exposing Holocaust deniers.
So that was how I found myself in the distinguished-visitors lounge at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Tuesday, January 25. We boarded a Gulfstream jet that seemed like it might have seated 40 but was configured for 10 passengers and six crew members. From the outside it looked like a miniature Air Force One, with the words United States of America emblazoned on the side. (Cheney was leaving later that night on Air Force Two, which was on the tarmac nearby.) I was able to answer my e-mail and to blog from the plane.
When we landed in Kraków in a blinding snowstorm, a convoy of police cars, limos, SUV's, and vans moved forward across the tarmac to greet us. The American ambassador to Poland, Victor Ashe, emerged from a car and thanked us for coming. Our luggage was unloaded and placed on a truck that preceded us to the hotel. By the time I entered my room, the luggage was waiting for me. It was all very heady and quite unlike my life as a professor.
But the Sybaritic pleasures were severely tempered by the reason we were there. While I sat in the "control room" -- a hotel suite that had been turned into an office -- dealing with my e-mail, behind me State Department officials vigorously debated the most efficient way to get us to Auschwitz-Birkenau the next day for the ceremony. With the expected crowds and motorcades, the officials were unsure whether it was better to send us in the vice president's entourage or in our own van. After listening for a while, I turned around and observed that there was something surrealistic about discussing how to get to the death camp, the largest "cemetery" in the world, punctually. We laughed uncomfortably.
The next day we sat for three long hours in the falling snow listening to orations and participating in the commemoration. After a while the speeches, many by heads of state, began to morph one into another. What could the statesmen say, surrounded by camp survivors, in the shadow, literally, of the gas chambers? I was reminded of Adorno's pronouncement that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." It seemed to me that on a day such as this, prose fared little better, except for the words of those who had actually experienced the camps.
I tuned out the speakers and began to reflect on those survivors' writings, which were very much with me because I had just finished teaching a course on memoirs of the Holocaust. In Still Alive, Ruth Kluger describes watching an SS guard preening on the other side of the barbed wire with a walking stick that had a loaf of bread stuck to the end. He tormented the starving prisoners by dragging the bread in the mud. Watching the bread destroyed in the dirt hit Kluger "like a blow in the diaphragm because it was such a crudely sarcastic expression of undifferentiated hatred."
Primo Levi describes a similar experience in Survival in Auschwitz, when, during his first days at the camp, driven by thirst, he saw a large icicle hanging outside his window. He reached out and grabbed it only to have a "large heavy guard prowling outside" brutally snatch it away. "Warum?" Levi asked. The guard replied: "Hier ist kein warum." Here there is no why.
Sitting there in my four layers of clothing, heavy socks, special boots, earmuffs, and hat, and nursing a cup of hot coffee, which our minders had kindly provided us, I was thrust back to the final days of the camp, when the Germans, unwilling to let 60,000 surviving Jews fall into the hands of the Red Army, forced them to march through the snow toward Germany, where they were put in concentration camps.
In Speak You Also, Paul Steinberg recalled that as the march began he knew that "one thing is certain: In the days to come, many will die just when their wildest dreams are about to come true. And that will be the cruelest blow of all." And Steinberg was correct. So many people died that the trek entered history as a "death march."
In the final chapter of his memoir, Levi describes in detail the situation at Auschwitz during the days before the arrival of the Red Army. Levi, left behind in Auschwitz's so-called hospital, saw the camp decompose. "No more water, or electricity, broken windows and doors slamming in the wind. ... Ragged, decrepit, skeletonlike patients ... dragged themselves everywhere on the frozen soil, like an invasion of worms. They had ransacked all the empty huts in search of food and wood. ... No longer in control of their own bowels, they had fouled everywhere, polluting the precious snow, the only source of water remaining in the camp."
Levi attributed his survival during those difficult last days to the friendship and support of a small group of men who were in the hospital with him. Their only goal, he told Philip Roth years later, was to save "the lives of our sick comrades." On the night of the 26th of January one of them died. Levi and his friends were too cold and exhausted to bury him. There was nothing to do but go back to sleep and wait for the next day. "The Russians arrived while Charles and I were carrying Sómogyi a little distance outside. He was very light. We overturned the stretcher on the gray snow. Charles took off his beret. I regretted not having a beret."
Sixty years later, as darkness fell over Auschwitz, I turned to one of the members of our delegation and said: "It's really cold. I regret not having worn another layer of clothing." Suddenly Levi's words came cascading back on me. I was embarrassed. And then without explaining why, I stood up in silent tribute not just to Sómogyi, but to the countless nameless others who had died there or those, such as Elie Wiesel's father, who died soon after the death march. I also stood for people such as Levi, who survived but bore the terrible wounds of the place for the rest of their lives.
Despite the sharp wind, I took off my hat. After all, I had one.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. She is the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press, 1993) and the just-published History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving (Ecco).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 24, Page B5