This will be perhaps the toughest book I’ve ever read and hope I am ever likely to read.
By way of the internet, I came upon Gideon Grief’s “We Wept Without Tears; Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz”. How I came upon it was first I had read a NY Times story of Dina Babbitt, a surivor of Auschwitz, who has been trying to retrieve from the museum there some paintings she’d done, at the command of Mengele, of gypsies condemned to extermination. I had gone to look up the museum’s website and perhaps it was there, in one of the internal pages, I came across a mention of this book. I don’t remember the exact trail to it. But I came upon through some link a PDF of a few pages of “We Wept Without Tears” and based on that I decided I must order it.
Pitiless consciousness. The proverbial fruit of the fabled Tree of Knowledge. At some point in our migration to the land of the modern human we pick up, they say, imagination, and became dreamers of worlds, rather than simply living beings. However it happens, it remains that we are each of us, and every other thing, conduits and product of what has transpired before, with us come these long passings of DNA and the experience of what has transpired before being passed along as well, some say, and then one day there you are and you open your eyes as world experiencing world in the unique fashion that is the unduplicatable you. Regardless of what spiritual or philosophical or religious beliefs any of us may have, that is the nut of it, that we are each the produce and bearers of that world and its history. And are also, we modern humans, dreamers of worlds. of potentials for making a difference in our worlds, in however big or small a fashion, to satisfy instinctual desires and the dreams which occur to us or are sold to us are transmitted to us to carry on, all humankind in one way or another living out the dreams of someone else when we labor in societies those people created, walk down the roads they made, read the books they wrote, pass along these things called values, and those people too who made these patterns they too were carrying out dreams of someone else before them. Dreams built upon dreams built upon dreams becoming our world and the dreams and worlds of others to follow. I don’t myself believe that humans are the penultimate of that chain of dreams, or are the only ones to dream.
I remember when I was seven and woke up to consciousness in the way where you realize the infinite, as a seven-year-old may comprehend it, the fear of timelessness wrestling with the fear of not existing, the comprehension too of the limits of my reason. Of course I remember many things before then, being aware of time, feeling love, experiencing bitterness, learning and intuiting what I sensed to be “moral” choices (me making a choice in ethics), even already aware of death at a very young age and when two and three surrounding myself with all my toys and books, making sure they were in my bed and embraced by me just in case I should die during the night, so not one would be left behind, if they were in bed with me I’d the idea they would be magically enfolded in my love for them, knowing I loved them, and cross over with me into whatever that after life was. So when I was quite young I was aware of death and cherished some idea of after life, a very vague one, probably taught me. But it wasn’t the same as the awareness of consciousness that came at seven, which would keep me awake at night, wondering, and in a kind of mental pain at the knowledge of the weight of enduring unenlightened consciousness. I thought about how the infinite, whatever that meant, would be from then on with me. I thought about how I was a part of it, part of the infinite, and if I was to die and lose all consiousness of self, there was fear in me of that, of that loss, the loss of myself as thus a separate being, which really meant grief over losing the ability to look at something, at another, at myself too, and love and be loved. But then if I died and remained awake, remained conscious, my seven-year-old brain felt no more at ease with that either. I must have been told something about god as limitless light and love for I recall trying to imagine the infinite in that context and all I could muster was an eternal isolation chamber. I wished I had never become conscious for I didn’t see how one could tolerate the unknown without going mad and I could see no resolution. Exhuasted, I’d fall asleep eventually. I wondered how everyone else was able to live with this knowledge–or lack of knowlege–but if the rest of humanity managed it then perhaps I could find a way to as well.
Life happens. In the ensuing years you gather experience, your experience, the experience of others which you must be able to imagine in order to have empathy and perhaps sometimes learn something from it. You go about the business of living as a dreamer of worlds, probably first confident in your dreams then becoming aware you are making your way through the dreams of others, eventually then wondering whose dreams you are living, what dream will you have to transmit of your own along the way, and does it even matter in the long run. You decide why it might matter in the long or short run, determine what is precious to you, how you at least hope to live (not the way you might want to live, but the way you hope to conduct yourself, having determined what is precious). You in the great sea of what is understand of life, of present, past and future, conducting yourself not only as you attempt to choose, but living just plain and simply because that’s where you are, here and now, and your body demands it of you.
You experience death and birth and empathize and sympathize with the losses and joys of others. You understand more and more the many ways you’re not unique and how you may not after all be the be all and end all of things. You wonder at how much you may have learned when compared with everything you don’t know.
Me, I mean.
Life is painful so it’s a wonder anyone should intentionally put themselves through pain, but we do, for it is at times nothing less than a duty to listen to the painful experience of others and imagine it, out of respect for those who have suffered, and because we tend to have the hope that the more the stories are told, the more sympathy and empathy and understanding is aroused, the better the chances of passing along that learning and trying to dream better worlds.
I had read some of the stories of the survivors of those in Auschwitz, the death factories. I have read the trials. I have read the facts of the things that happened there. (And Auschwitz is of course not the only place, it is a symbol of a certain kind of horror.) I have read the diaries of the people who dreamt the world which built the camps and ran the death factories, who were in some part living out dreams of worlds devised before them as well.
But I hadn’t read the personal accounts of the Jewish Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz. Those who were forced to superintend the doomed, a thousand at a time entering the undressing rooms and going to the gas chambers, a thousand at a time who would be dead within one hour of passing through the selection, mothers and fathers with their young children, the elderly alone and with their children who had their children in arms. The Sonderkommandos who had the duty forced on them of superintending the doomed as they undressed, told to calm them. Who afterwards pried the bodies apart from each other, whole families clinging in embrace, who were commanded to farm their teeth for gold, carting the bodies to the crematoriums or the pits, disposing of the ashes which they would pound with shovels to smash the remaining small bits of bone to gravel, thousand after thousand like this so that sometimes in the one day’s time there will be the ashes of twenty thousand, or in the space of two weeks the ashes of forty thousand who had been embarrassed with the shame of undressing, who had attempted to calm the fears of their children, wives who calmed rebellious husbands, each bewildered in someone else’s dream of how the world should be, imaginations which had determined they should all be slaughtered, thousand after thousand stripped and dead within an hour of a hand waving you to one side or another, to the pain of the gas chambers or the horrors of the camp. Dreamers of worlds determining that a million and a half dreamers of worlds should die in the gas chambers. A steady methodical deliverance of thousands upon thousands walking several abreast into the undressing rooms, their clothes piling in the center of the floor, their ash eventually destined for the concealing river, but their clothing esteemed as having some value, permitted to continue to exist in the worlds of those dreamers and sent on to another camp and then sent to Germany.
The dream of some of the Sonderkommandos was to live to tell their tale to the world, which would be their witness of those who perished.
Dreamers of worlds. The Sonderkommandos who tell their stories trusted that those stories would matter, that their dream of telling their stories would make a difference in the dreamers of worlds who heard and read them. I was unaware of the book, but Dina Babbit wanted her paintings back and I read that story, and because of reading that story I looked up the Auschwitz museum on the internet and by some link or another eventually came to a PDF with a portion of “We Wept Without Tears” that made me feel I ought to read this book. I checked at the Atlanta library and they didn’t have a copy. So I ordered one. It arrived yesterday and I sat down to read last night. I stopped reading halfway through the first interview and went in to sleep, a full day ahead of me.
Pityless consciousness. While lying in bed, I looked at my hand for a half an hour, thinking of how my hand is so different than it was twenty years ago, who might love that hand now and twenty years from now and who might think it a horrible reminder of mortality. Thought of the dreams of worlds we work on realizing with our hands. I thought too of how I didn’t want to go to sleep and sleeping dream this story of the Sonderkommandos, not right then.
I thought of how trails of knowledge and action work. I have tried to raise H.o.p. with a knowledge that all that we do has an effect on everything else. Not just something else, but everything else, and to be mindful of this. At least be mindful.
Chains of action and knowledge. I read of Dina Babbit and tonight I began reading the stories of the Sonderkommandos, which I may not have come upon had it not been for her struggle to get back her paintings. I would not be present as a witness at the last moments of these million-and-a-half murdered in the gas chambers without the stories of the Sonderkommandos. A remote witness, via ink and paper. But the stories they tell pull you past the ink and paper and through time. It is too close a position in which to stand, but we must. One goes through the selection process with the condemned, one enters with them into the undressing room, one carries in the food which you’ve brought to satisfy your childrens’ hunger, you feel a hope that everything will be all right as the Nazis tell you to hurry, hurry, that there’s coffee and cake waiting for you after your showers. Via the Sonderkommandos descriptions, you feel the vulnerability of being stripped of your clothing–which is why the people were all stripped, being nude stealing from their confidence, making them awkward, vulnerable. You step into the showers where soon too many are crammed. The door closes and now you depart the doomed, outside again with one of the few Sonderkommando who lived to tell the story that eventually the shipments slowed to a step because the ghettos had been emptied, after which began the dismantling process of the crematoriums and gas chambers in an effort to hide the evidence.
Restrain with order, pacify with lies, control with vulnerability. It is too terrifyingly easy.