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Berlin, Auschwitz, and a Memoir

Bored with Auschwitz? Can’t stand any more about trains and gas chambers? I sympathise. It’s hard to think of a more distasteful subject when the surf is up, and the sun is shining, and next weekend’s travel arrangements are being planned. So just for a change let’s get away from the death throes of Hitler’s victims, and watch the death throes of the Nazi leadership instead.

It’s April 1945, and the scene is the hole where they’re hiding—a concrete bunker under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Inside the bunker Goebbels is about to poison his wife and her six children, the “grave-digger of the Germany army” Field Marshal Keitel is ordering half-starved adolescents into battle against Russian tanks, while the deranged dictator, the Fuehrer Adolf Hitler himself, goes more and more round the bend.

Reichsfuehrer S.S. Himmler, the Nazi prince of darkness responsible for millions of hideous deaths, is lying low. A sickly chinless creature peering myopically through thick lenses, a man living in the shadows, a sinister black human fungus touching everything with its fatal toxicity, he wears on his cap the proud symbol of the S.S.—a skull and crossbones. The obese sensualist Hermann Goering is in Bavaria. And the incurable fantasist Albert Speer, a moth drawn back again and again to the flame of his megalomaniac hero, comes and goes.

The atmosphere in the bunker is poisonous. A vicious opportunism prevails, and they’re turning on each another, or fleeing, or secretly trying to do deals to save their skins, or planning suicide. When Goering in Bavaria tries to take over the Nazi leadership, Hitler strips him of all titles and offices, and insinuates that execution could be next. When Hitler finds that Herbert Fegelein, Eva Braun’s brother-in-law, has packed his bags and is preparing to run away, he is seized and unceremoniously marched into the Reich Chancellery garden and shot. On April 22 the Fuehrer discovers that the Russians have entered Berlin: “he began to scream and yell. Now the S.S. was betraying him as well as the army… Eventually he collapsed into an armchair, drained and weeping.”

* * *

As the situation worsened Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge was shocked to stumble upon scenes of moral disintegration in the bunker’s underground hospital:

An erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody. Everywhere, even on the dentist’s chair, I saw bodies locked in lascivious embraces. The women had discarded all modesty and were freely exposing their private parts.

Antony Beevor, whose Berlin: the Downfall of 1945 I am freely drawing on here, adds that SS officers “had been tempting hungry and impressionable young women back to the Reich Chancellery with promises of parties and inexhaustible supplies of food and champagne. It was the apocalypse of totalitarian corruption, with the concrete submarine of the Reich Chancellery underworld providing an Existentialist theatre set for hell.” (344)

* * *

As the Wehrmacht retreated before the Soviet army through the forests near Teupitz, south of Berlin, it was hell there too. The Russian writer Konstantin Simonov saw a sight he would never forget:

“In that place there was thick forest on both sides of the autobahn, half coniferous, half deciduous, already becoming green. A cutting, not wide, led through the forest on both sides of the motorway, and one wasn’t able to see its ends… It was packed with a terrible jam of cars, trucks, tanks, armoured cars, vehicles, ambulances, all of them not only pushed closely against one another, but literally jammed on top of each other, overturned, standing on end, upset, breaking the surrounding trees.”

“In this mess of metal, wood and something unidentifiable was a dreadful mash of tortured human bodies. And all this went along the cutting into infinity. In the surrounding forest—corpses, corpses, corpses, mixed with, I suddenly noted, ones who were still alive. There were wounded people lying on greatcoats and blankets, sitting leaning against trees, some in bandages, others still without any.”

“Some even lay on the edge of the autobahn, which was half-blocked by debris and covered in oil, petrol, and blood. One of the officers explained that this group had been caught by the massed fire of several regiments of heavy artillery and katyushas.”

* * *

Back in the bunker cyanide is tested on Hitler’s dog. In Italy Mussolini’s cadaver has been displayed hanging upside down, and Hitler fears that could happen to him. He shoots himself, Eva Braun takes poison, and both corpses are carried outside and burnt. Next day Magda Goebbels supervises the killing of her children in their beds. They first get tranquillizing morphine injections from SS doctor Kunz, and then have ampoules of poison forced into their mouths and crushed by Dr Stumpfegger.

There is evidence that the eldest girl, Helga, may have struggled to resist her murderers. Her face was later found to be badly bruised. Goebbels and his wife then take cyanide and are also shot “as a precautionary coup de grace” by a third party, Goebbels’ adjutant Gunther Schwaegermann, who then throws petrol over them and lights the funeral pyre.

It’s a free country. If you’d rather not think about Auschwitz that’s your privilege. It’s hard to say whether the showing of the NPD in Dresden was a straw in the wind, the tip of an iceberg, or something of no significance at all. But simply for our own self-preservation, we who enjoy the benefits of western civilization should now and then contemplate its deepest stain, the Nazi era, and do what we can to ensure it is never repeated.

This Prayerful Life — a Polish Memoir

Alice Sternhell

At the age of nine I was a diehard atheist, having acquired my parents’ agnostic/atheistic convictions. It was September 1942 and I was about to be liquidated with the rest of my family in an Aktion of which most people in the Czestochowa Ghetto had an inkling.

My mother was a dentist and the wife of one of her colleagues saved my life. She was a very devout and saintly Catholic lady. She had brown soulful eyes which were mostly cast down in prayer; she went to confession and mass every morning and had a very other-worldly look about her. This was not mere religiosity: this was a heroic woman committing a Christian deed in the true sense of the word, risking her life to save a child she had never met before.

She saw a horrific situation and decided to do what she could to correct it. When she became aware of what was about to happen, she decided at unbelievable personal risk to rescue me and any other Jewish child she could lay her hands on. She walked into the Ghetto (it was at that stage an “open” Ghetto i.e. Christian Poles could come and go and we had to stay put), spoke to my parents who grabbed the chance to save one of their children — my sister being older needed a Kennkarte, or identity card. My saviour came armed with a birth certificate of some deceased child of my age, took my hand and we walked out of the doomed place. It was just before curfew time, no one stopped us and we arrived at her place without any incidents. I was told my new name and taught the prayers.

On the following day we left Czestochowa, where it would have been very dangerous for me to remain as someone could have recognised me. We went by train to the countryside where I stayed for a few days with a relative of hers. However, I could not stay there indefinitely and my poor saviour did not know what to do with this ticking bomb that I obviously represented.

She decided to take me to Krakow and place me with her parents. We boarded a train and arrived at the main station after the curfew time, but we had been told that that people coming off the train were allowed to walk home. With me clutching her hand, we started walking to her parents’ place. We were soon stopped by a man (Gestapo?) who declared that the lady looked Jewish and that he was taking us to the Police station. My benefactor had dark thoughtful eyes and especially with a scarf around her head, she did indeed look somewhat Semitic.

She wanted to show him her documents on the street, but he insisted that we come with him. In the entrance of the Police station, the man took her papers, which were of course perfectly in order and looked through them; than he shone his torch in my face and said “the child looks Jewish too”. I have been trying to recollect what he looked like. Did he wear a uniform and if so what sort? Did he speak Polish well?

All I can remember is knowing that I was in mortal danger and that I must behave above suspicion. It did not occur to me to give up, burst into tears and thereby commit suicide. I thought fast: a Polish child told that she looked Jewish would laugh, so I smiled sweetly and tried to look amused. He than told me to say my prayers. I recited “Our Father” and started on “Hail Mary” when he stopped me and let us go. Had he asked to see my birth certificate, it would have been curtains, as he naturally assumed that we were mother and daughter. My “story” was extremely flimsy — “I lost my parents”, I said, by which I understood that I was walking somewhere with them and that I got lost.

We made it to the elderly couple’s place without any further incidents. I was to have many more close shaves, but this was probably the most dramatic. I wish I could say that I had an epiphany and became a devout Catholic, a religieuse, (or a devout Jew or Muslim for that matter) but even at this tender age I was a realist and just thanked my luck for our escape. At 75, I still have not changed my mind.

PS: Quotation from “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust”, Macmillan Publishing Company 1990: “Between September 22 and October 8, 1942 a total of thirty nine thousand Jews were sent (from Czestochowa) to the Treblinka extermination camp.” My family was among them.

Note: This memoir first appeared in the Review section of The Australian for September 20-21, 2008.

Posted in For the Record.

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