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Oral History and the War

The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective

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Piotr Filipkowski

This book is rooted in the author’s experience as an interviewer and researcher in the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project – the biggest European oral history project devoted to a single Nazi concentration camp system, realized in the years 2002/2003 at the University of Vienna. Over 850 Mauthausen survivors have been recorded worldwide, more than 160 of them in Poland, and over 30 by the author.

The work offers an in-depth analysis of Polish survivors’ accounts, sensitive to both, form and content of these stories, as well as their social and cultural framing. The analysis is accompanied by an interpretation of (Polish) camp experiences in a broader biographical and historical perspective. The book is an interpretive journey from camp experiences, through the survivors’ memories, to narratives recalling them − and backwards.

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4 Excursus: Mauthausen in female narratives

←147 | 148→←148 | 149→

4Excursus: Mauthausen in female narratives

Mauthausen was a male camp. As opposed to Ravensbrück, Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, no separate camp for female inmates functioned within the main camp structure until the 15th of September 1944. This is not to say that there were no women kept in Mauthausen before this date. As meticulously recorded by historians of this Nazi concentration camp, the first four Slovenian women arrived at Mauthausen in the spring of 1942 – just to be executed by firing squad on the 20th of April, which was Hitler’s birthday, together with forty-six male prisoners. The said birthday has left a lasting impression in the memory of inmates, male and female alike, of many concentration camps.

A few months later, ten women were transported to Mauthausen from Ravensbrück, and assigned a labour with the camp’s newly established brothel – the ‘puff’ – to use the camp language. This institution was set up by way of Himmler’s decision, with a view to solve or at least diminish the problem of homosexuality within the camp. The puff tends to be mentioned by the male inmates of Mauthausen that we talked to, although it appears, as a rule, as part of a reply to the interviewer’s question(s). The puff is, namely, one of the less-popular fragments of camp recollections, not to be heard of by just anyone. Once it appears, the puff is in most cases a place where the others would go – inaccessible for the narrator. The speaker’s own visits there are sporadically evoked – and any such visit would be made contrary to the venue’s designed core purpose, in a way that discloses its other specific functions. The following is an excerpt concerning the camp’s underlife:

Man, there was one Polish woman there, I recall. Yes, those were such women prisoners too, who were cheated by the Germans // that ‘you’ll go out to freedom, but you must stay there for some number of days, there’. And those poor wenches, as they wanted to come out to freedom, went to that puff. Well, I, // as I approached her, it was a small Polish girl, I can remember. // So what’d you do? // The day came, [and] you had to go there, you got your card // and you had to go into there. As I went there, then I got some cigarettes. For what I said was, ‘I’m not turning up here to knock it off – sorry for the word – but you just give me my five cigarettes, and I’m off.’ You know what, you would ever think of such things? Oh dear me.200

The puff attracted attention – also by way of contrast, as something non-adhering to the camp universe, even though the contrast was anything but apparent. It is, ←149 | 150→in fact, one of the many chapters in the story of women in Mauthausen, and perhaps the shortest one. Yet, it is hopefully not the least important aspect – also because it has been neglected over the years by the camp’s historians, instead only mentioned in footnotes or appearing through some suggestive (or ambiguous) quotations from the inmates’ memories. The image of women working, or coerced to do the work, in the puff, as constructed in these memories, is usually bound with negative emotions. An understanding of, and empathy for, this variety of the camp lot appears deficient in them.201

In the autumn of 1942, a group of 135 women arrived from the occupied Czech lands to the Mauthausen camp; two were put before a firing squad and the others killed in a gas chamber. Over the following two years, until August 1944, women were transported into the camp in order to be executed or kept there temporarily, and then dispatched forward, to some other camp. A dedicated numbering was introduced for those women as from the 15th August the Frauenkonzentrationslager Mauthausen (F-KLM) was instituted. A few barracks were assigned for this purpose. Some female inmates were sent, however, to various subcamps where they were supposed to perform a variety of work, such as in weaponry factories.

Autumn of 1944 marked the beginning of arrivals of thousands of women to Mauthausen, brought in with evacuation transports from other camps: the largest such batch, of some three thousand, came in the winter of 1945 from Gross-Rosen, and was forwarded to Bergen-Belsen. March 1945 saw some two thousand women brought from Ravensbrück. A transport similar in size set forth from Flossenbūrg, but less than two hundred people actually reached Mauthausen – the others were killed on the way. The estimated number of registered female inmates at Mauthausen is around four thousand – this is based on data retrievable with documents and preserved camp files; many more might have been through the camp without leaving such traces.

Polish women also turned up in Mauthausen in 1944, still before the dedicated female camp was set up. Some of them would be accompanied by their children (while some were still children themselves) and by men deported from Warsaw, through the Pruszków transit camp, during the Warsaw Uprising. The males were given Mauthausen numbers, and taken to the camp. The women were kept at the so-called Zeltlager – a makeshift tent camp where extremely awful conditions prevailed, even as compared to the ordinary camp barracks. The women from the Warsaw transport were sent a few weeks later to take on various forced-labour tasks across Austria. Although the inmates were registered, the exact number of ←150 | 151→those arriving from Warsaw has not been determined to date. An approximation can only be given, whereby four hundred to seven hundred women arriving during the Warsaw Uprising stayed in Mauthausen. This is according to what historians have concluded; a similar number is indicated by a Polish female prisoner from that particular transport:

Of those women were plenty, I should think, five hundred definitely, or there were more of them maybe, weren’t they. ‘Cause there was, I think, well, thirty persons each, // well, I don’t know, // maybe seven of those wagons. For I know it was a long train. A long train, that one. … A thousand, perhaps? Well, // but there was quite a lot of that, a lot of women there was.202

* * *

One of the purposes behind the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project (MSDP) was to record the accounts of women – female testimonies. The project leaders resolved to make recordings of more such reports than the structure of the prisoner community would suggest, with females accounting for less than 5 percent of the total number of inmates.203 Representativeness, the intent to maintain a proportion corresponding to the camp’s reality, was generally an important assumption of the project, but in this particular case (as with the Jewish inmates) the decision was made in order to upset this proportion. Otherwise, the voices of camp minorities would not sound and resound properly, deafened by the voices of the majority, resembling one another: those of political, and male, prisoners. For those who delivered the project, it was clear that what was statistically representative might very easily predominate and conceal what was peculiar and untypical about the camp experience.204 A ‘quantitative’ correctness and meticulousness may also lead to a ‘qualitative’ falsification. Hence, finally, with some 850 interviews recorded as part of the project, as many as ninety-six were conducted with women. I am pointing out this aspect also in order to show how important methodological issues are to oral history projects.

This overrepresentation is also true, and to a larger extent, for the video interviews recorded within MSDP and, consequently, for a new display due to be prepared for the Mauthausen Memorial Site once the project is completed. Extensive thirty or forty minute fragments of twenty video interviews with former prisoners of both sexes, and of various nationalities, have been made use of within ←151 | 152→the said display; there are three female accounts. The footage is also available at the Mauthausen Memorial Site website (www.mauthausen-memorial.at)205.

The Polish section of the project has made recordings of a total of 164 interviews with Mauthausen survivors – a mere three of which were with females. To find those three women and to get their consent for a conversation called for a remarkable effort on our part – much bigger than successfully getting in touch with male interviewees. The camp stories told by these women did not quite ‘fit’ those of the male prisoners, which was also the way these women subjectively sensed it. These stories, so to speak, are believed to be not dramatic enough, which is not a favourable circumstance with respects to involvement with the former inmates’ milieu. The women remain in a rather loose relationship with their male counterparts – and are incapable themselves of forming a separate female milieu, in contrast to, for example, the former female inmates of Ravensbrück. Or, more precisely, they used to be incapable, as there are but a few women from those Warsaw transports still alive today. The several weeks stay at the tent camp by the wall of Mauthausen has proven insufficient for building a separate group of Nazi concentration camp inmates who could be recognised as a milieu. What this meant was that the memory of camp experiences those women prisoners kept with them had no social space to be tended to, sustained, and solidified; only a private space remained. In the course of one female interview, in the presence of the husband of the interviewee being recorded, the following dialogue appeared in relation to her formally joining the former prisoners’ milieu:

[Interviewee’s husband:] We can tell you that, as Alina has completed her [application] sheet to join the, // the organisation of people who were there at Mauthausen, it was not with joy that they received that sheet of hers. There’s probably no woman belonging to that organisation. // [AK:] No. // Yes, I am probably the first one. // [Husband:] OK then, then, // and the secretary told her, I think, it was: “I don’t know if this can be settled.” Yeah, but this has come over in the meantime.206

Another of the interviewed women at one point mentions a (dis)integrated milieu of former female inmates:

All that got somehow dispersed somewhere later on.207

While to build a generalisation upon a single occurrence would clearly miss the point, such a fact can at least be noted – and I believe that it is worthwhile indeed, given the context. The thing is that one of the three former Mauthausen inmates, ←152 | 153→whose interview we have recorded, had come forward after she listened to a Polish Radio broadcast featuring the KARTA Centre principal telling a story of our documentary project and inviting former prisoners to participate. Characteristically, this was most likely the only such case: given the Polish circumstances, one does not need a radio advertisement to meet Nazi concentration camp inmates, as there are simpler and more efficient ways to do so. This shows that the title of Baumgartner’s book – The Forgotten Women of Mauthausen – encompasses the Polish female inmates as well. The lady, who called us following the radio broadcast said the following about her (non-)participation in the commemoration rituals that were so important to this group of prisoners – their annual trips (‘peregrinations’, as they themselves tend to call them):

As to the camp, in turn, I have never had an opportunity to visit it. And till this day haven’t I had one. ‘Cause I’ve never been there for a second time, though I should really be willing to. And I wouldn’t take umbrage at all, I have to say. Even now that I’m telling you this, crooked [laughs] and lame as I am. I wouldn’t take umbrage if Linz authorities invited me one day. There weren’t really any children there. I don’t know if I was the only one in the whole town. And the authorities would, well, not go so poor, I think, to have me invited for a period of a week, be it a week, so that I could see the town for myself. The beautiful, magnificent town of Linz, it is after all. I have never experienced it, that anyone // ever invited me, be it for a week. No, this is what hasn’t happened.208

* * *

The three narrations of women recorded as part of the Polish chapter of MSDP are distinct by more than the mere fact that they form a record of a forgotten, if not completely unknown, historical experience – or, more specifically, autobiographical memory. What is even more, in my opinion, is the female aspect or colour of these stories, and it is this particular aspect that I would like to focus on now, leaving the facts behind these testimonies somewhat aside.

I have purposefully included the female excursus in my analysis right after I embark on approaching the third type of Mauthausen survivor’s autobiographical narrative that I herein discern. Each of the women whose accounts we recorded were dispatched to the camp within the Warsaw transport of August 1944 – that is, during the Uprising and in relation to this, as part of an “evacuation” of civilians through the transitory camp in Pruszków near Warsaw. Our interviewees’ age is comparable to the Warsaw male colleagues that we recorded, and although they stayed in Mauthausen for a mere few weeks, and were then sent off to do forced labour in Braunau, Steyr, or Linz, their biographical trajectories appear to be similar to those of the men from the Warsaw transports that we talked to.

←153 | 154→

The experiences of the several months between the summer of 1944 and the spring of 1945 are (re)constructed in these stories as radical trajectories that the speakers themselves are not able and have no chance to oppose. They form a biographical rupture which tears up the continuity of experience, breaking the life history into two non-matching parts. Applicable to these experiences are a number of further detailed recognitions that I made earlier, describing a profile of the ‘Warsaw’ accounts. This would also be true for remarks made when it came to constructing the other two types of camp narratives, for this reason I have included interviews with Polish female prisoners who spent several years at Ravensbrück and with those who were imprisoned there at a later date for conspiracy, usually having been through a detention, prison, or another camp(s) beforehand.209 This, however, would require a different study – one probably worth writing in the future. Here however, for a number of reasons, my objective is to focus on surviving Mauthausen inmates of both sexes.

What about the aforementioned ‘female aspect’ in the biographical experience, if the third type of survivor narrative apparently includes these reports? Within the interviews under analysis, I can recognise two dimensions of relevant differences, both associated with the gender/sex aspect: gender-related – that is, culture-laden, and sex-related, i.e. biologically conditioned. Albeit both are overlapping and penetrate each other across the narrations analysed, I will nonetheless try and identify a few moments characteristic to each:

1)The first such dimension is rather easy to grasp when watching a video recording210, listening to an audio recording or reading interview transcripts – as long as one is willing to focus on the moments unveiling the processes of socialisation into social-cultural roles of man and woman (and effects thereof), graspable as they are with use of the gender (i.e. ‘cultural sex’) category. As any other experience, the camp experience is observable and analysable from such a standpoint as well. To put it differently: the autobiographical narrations of the former female inmates do not essentially stand out in this respect from those uttered by women who were not imprisoned in a camp but lived within the same social-cultural space and time.

As part of his analysis of an account he received from a German Jewess who survived Auschwitz, Michael Pollak finds that, along with any other legitimate interpretation, this woman’s life ought to be read as a woman’s lot ←154 | 155→(Frauenschicksal). He takes a careful look at the femininity in his interlocutor’s utterance, taking note of the great role played in it by private occurrences and interpersonal relations, the way in which this woman unveils her own likes and dislikes, her compassion – as well as the emotions or lack thereof; also, the way she distances herself from, if not ignoring altogether, the legal-institutional interpretations of her experiences. All of this makes her report different from the accounts of men, or at least, from ‘manly’ ones. It befits that my observations are similar to those of Pollak: whenever I watch, listen to, or read the accounts of former female prisoners (and, within this reading, necessarily compare them to those of male inmates), similar reflections come to my mind. I would perhaps complement them by stating that female accounts tend to be ‘denser’, with more specific close-ups, vivid images propelled by the memories.

All these differences between the women’s and men’s narrations, or between female and male ones, are obviously relative. These are certain models, ideal types, with the specific accounts getting closer to, or further from, them – although women’s stories more frequently tend to have much in common with the female narrative type while men’s stories, with the male type.

This finding also extends to our interviews with former Mauthausen inmates. Let us take a look at a few such female, gender-related moments; first, those dating to the childhood years in Warsaw. Here is how one of our interviewees Irena Norwa, born in 1928, speaks of her sentiments toward her older brother:

I had an elder brother, four years my elder; born in the year nineteen twenty-eight. Stanisław was his name; / Stanisław-Włodzimierz. I loved my brother very much, and he did love me too. He was my ideal of man, // this is what I thought to myself then already, // that, just like him, // then, the time I was ten already, I figured out for myself that my future husband should be like him. My brother was so good a man and so handsome, so nice-looking and so good he was, that // he took so much care of me, like. He taught me, he primarily took care of me then, the time my father perished, [it was] when the Occupation was on already. He would play with me; when I was a little child, he knew how to play with me too. He would always play the nicest games with me, // he played a [religious] procession with me. I would sprinkle the flowers, and he marched, having, on a small broom, // there were such beautiful little brooms with which to dust clothes at the time, // and some veil of our mother’s, and that was a monstrance. And he’d march, dressed into a priest, and I would sprinkle the flowers in front of him. Those were the very pleasant games we played. And since there was a very big one, one of the rooms, some sort of thirty [square] metres, then we, around the table, // that was the dining room, // around the table were we walking. He was still a young man then. He was a very good student, was graduating from the ‘[King] Władysław IV [Vasa]’ gymnasium [i.e. grammar school], in Warsaw, Praga district. He completed his high-school exams in year thirty-nine. He was a man so talented. // [pause] How old was he then, in fact? Seventeen? I can remember one ←155 | 156→thing, as he took his entrance exams for the school, ‘Władysław IV’, he passed to the second grade at once – he was admitted. He omitted grade one, so uniquely gifted he was. This is perhaps why he was so fast to complete those studies at the Warsaw University during the Occupation, at the [secret] sets [i.e. underground education courses].

The brother motif reappears elsewhere in this account, during our subsequent meeting, as his involvement and eventual death in the Warsaw Uprising is remembered:

It was yesterday that I was looking for it [the photograph]. And I must say to you, madam, that // I’ll give it to you once again, so that you can maybe scan it for yourself. Because, looking at it, then those are such beautiful young Columbuses211, and these ones are for certain those from the Officer-Cadet School. … He sensed so much the need to defend this Poland. He considered Poland his other mother. I can remember this precisely. I am getting tears in my eyes still today, and then, we both [i.e. me and my mother] cried. [moved] So good a kid was he! And then he went away. And we’ve never seen him again. After that, very soon after, it was the fifteenth, wasn’t it, of August, they came over and threw us away from this house.

And again, later in the interview:

But he was God’s chosen one and this is why God took him away; as to prevent him from going spoiled in this world.

These are just a few selected quotes in which this intense recollection of her brother appears. This narration displays many more similar images. Is it a completely ordinary story (also due to the idealisation factor) of a brother who was killed in the Uprising? Perhaps it is – but it is also true that none of the 161 men recorded within the project would say so much in such an elevated, engaged, and sentimental way about their brothers or sisters. And there were a number of people with similar biographies indeed.

This same recording has preserved an expressive image of the first days under the Occupation, although the image does not appear there by itself, a strong interpretation being joined with it – and we can clearly see the meanings given to the image by the narrator:

←156 | 157→

My auntie … was delivering a baby. She had a girl born on September the eighth. As her husband was absent, since he had just been off for a so-called, // it was called a rajza [from German Reise, a ‘tour’] then. // For a rajza, on the General’s command. … And then, the tough experiences began for me. For, first, it’s that for a child, the delivery of a baby that was small then, in such an openness of sorts, in such a, // it was a shock for me then. I didn’t know how children were born. … So it was, from the start, // they set me into an adult life of some sort. A transit to, // to some kind of adulthood. That I am, all of a sudden, // that I’ve become an adult; at this moment in my life. That I am such a, well, on equal terms with, // made aware of things, with my mum. That my mum, // there was of course some midwife accompanying this, but that awareness; // I say, ‘Mummy, what’s this, that’s happened?’ ‘A child’s been born.’ ‘But it wasn’t a stork [that carried it], was it?’ Well, and then this, just this, came to my consciousness, that I was an adult. I had been ranked already within such, yet, // within a sort of responsibility, // in an instant. [pause]

And it was about responsibility because you had to take care – the auntie was very ill – of that child. My mom was busy arranging for some milk for my auntie. For food shortages showed up straight away. Medical care for the auntie was scarce. ‘Cause you couldn’t find a doctor. There was nothing to bathe the child in. // Arranging for water, // as Warsaw fell short of water then already. Those were really tough moments. And there, responsibility began at once in my ten-year-old life for that the child had to be bathed. That I ought to help out, that I ought to take some care of that child. I readily had my duties, at once. [pause] And I’ve been struggling with those duties till this day, so to say it, just here between us. Always, this responsibility for someone else’s life has been encumbered upon me.212

Starting with the astonishment experienced by a young girl at the sight of a child being born, just a couple of sentences further on, we are unexpectedly faced with the end of her life – the moment filled, as we can learn, with a responsibility for the lives of others. Again, it is likely that a larger number of those I have interviewed have once nursed or looked after their younger brothers and sisters, and then later on, their own children, feeling responsible for them. Yet, no one else has thematised this motif: this is not the sort of a matter that would come to one’s mind while constructing an autobiography in the situation of being interviewed. It would not, as it does not fit a male/manly story.

One of the standard questions we usually asked as the interview was nearing an end, was (regardless of how such questions were expressed) about the consequences of the camp experiences – and wartime experiences in general, about their individual memory, any reoccurring unwelcome recollections or obtrusive dreams. The replies given were obviously varied; some interviewees told us about memories gnawing them at night, some others, that any such ←157 | 158→reminiscences have long ago been averted, flushed out by the rapid current of everyday life. But even amidst this diversity, the answer given by one female survivor draws our attention through its womanly singularity:

No. No, madam. I didn’t have the time. I did not have the time to sit around dwelling what, who, when, and for how much. I simply didn’t have time for it. As I’m saying, I was working, doing a legitimate work, I ran the household, and so, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, and so on. As my husband didn’t like doing it, it was me then to see to the kid, whether he did his homework, and how he did it, … anything that was related to the kid. Later on, when my mom was older, then I was handling my mom. Yea, so I didn’t have the time to sit down, and dwell. Instead, I did have time to sit in the evening and read a book. That’s what I could find some time for. But to dwell about what, who, and when, again – there was no time, simply. Besides, well, what for, actually? There was no point sitting and dwelling, what, when. Then, this is what it looked like.213

This is an excerpt where womanhood and manhood appear expressly, and not only as traits of a narrative: in the first place, as differences in the experience, and at a supra-individual level, as social inequalities, distinct divisions explainable in gender terms. This is also worth noting in order to show that the discourse is not a conclusive entity here – there are important splits reconstructed in everyday interactions, based whereupon a social reality is built (or, was built, in this particular case, as the past is being referred to). Having ascertained this, it is perhaps worthwhile to make one more step toward a methodological afterthought whereby the experience-based narrative and the experience itself appear to be interpenetrative here; the other finding is that, analysing the experience-related narrative – probably the only thing we can do while elaborating a biographical account – we do not tear up the ties with a social reality. On the contrary, this reality may appear to us in a very distinctive and specific form: not within an abstract structure but in the subjective meanings the narrator fills his or her story with. In an autobiographical interview, these meanings are not of any possible type but are socially constituted, simultaneously forming part of the constitution of a social universe.214

Let us follow one more female reply – this time, in response to a question asked in a different way, as part of another interview. The question sought the impact exerted by the interlocutor’s camp experience on her after-camp life (clearly, as far as realisable), or even on conscious choices she has made in her life if instigated by it.

←158 | 159→

I have learned … how to help the others, you know? And this … has remained with me so and I, in fact, have been doing it permanently, till this day.

We can better understand this reply once aware of its broader biographical context. The interlocutor was born in 1921 (and was the oldest woman recorded as part of our project); before the war, she assisted her father in running a hairdresser’s outlet. During the Occupation, she worked for the Red Cross and was involved in conspiratorial activities, probably serving with the Home Army (abbr. in Polish as ‘AK’).

You know, I find it rather difficult to tell you, at the moment. Well, that was, probably, // I think that was the AK. But this is not the way they’d say it, is it. So I can’t very well remember what it was. So, // and then, I received the, // in 1943, I got an advice telling me that I was supposed to turn up at, // in Aleje-Szucha [J.C. Szucha Avenue, Warsaw], to the Gestapo [headquarters]. So, I should suppose, I must’ve got into hot water, since I was walking around, delivering those letters, then I had somewhere, // I’ve even got, by the way, a Red Cross ID, with me.

In the Warsaw Uprising, this interviewee assisted as a nurse:

There was the, // it was operational, the ‘Transfiguration of Our Lord’ Hospital in Praga [district], then we carried those wounded ones into there in fear. And then, in August 1944, the Germans grabbed the dressing station I was in. And they took me away to the camp in the apron and the cap.

The war over, she settled in the United Kingdom where she opened a hairdressing outlet of her own some time later (she eventually returned to Poland in 1985).

The motif of helping the others and, to an extent, sacrificing oneself for them, reappears in this particular autobiography. It adds meaning to the varied scattered experiences and becomes the narrative’s binding factor. The real aid offered to the others (I do not doubt it occurred) comes secondary here – the significance it assumes for the narrator herself being of primary importance; the sense it furnishes her with.

The camp, actually – I didn’t break down in the situation I saw myself in, just conversely. I rather set out to helping the others, didn’t I; which did help me a lot. Me personally, right? For I [thus] had a business to attend, …well, and also later on, the war over, when already in those camps, same thing. When I got to the United Kingdom, I also got involved in that Polonia work [i.e. activities related to the local Polish community], that is, organising a Polish life in the UK.215

I have already mentioned the detailedness characteristic of the women’s memories. This can be testified to by a number of examples across the three interviews ←159 | 160→with former Mauthausen female inmates. The passages quoted below should suffice to illustrate the female precision, sensitivity to detail:

Well, and, madam, I usually could successfully make my way to school in ten minutes. And if from school, then I would walk, and walk again. Especially in winter did I walk for a long time, for there were excellent hills there, there was a [school] bag on which you could slide. And so, on the bag, and gee up!, down the hill. And I usually would always get, what you call, a couple of smacks on the butt, as I was completely soaked when back home, not to mention the boots which I usually quickly took off, or dried them on the stairwell radiator; … took them off, yes, so that they wouldn’t be noticed, so to cram them somewhere so my mom didn’t see they were wet, that you could, what you call it, wring them out. Well, // but, in the end, children have their rights, do they not? And so my father would always say, ‘Leave her alone. C’mon, can’t you see the kid just wants to have a slide?’ And then mom says, ‘Damn it, does she have to do it with the bag, then?’ 216

This vividness of narrative imaging is not limited to a happy childhood – the time is all the happier if contrasted with the later-date imprisonment at a Nazi concentration camp: it extends to the narration regarding the latter, the way that led to the camp and, before that, the daily life under the Occupation. The following opinion was expressed about the latter aspect in one of the interviews:

Well, for you had to know something. Yeah, this is how the years passed one after the other. There was not much that changed in our family, well, since my father normally worked with the… // ‘normally’ did I say, for a German company.

This interview brings along a number of concrete facts recalled, not completely ordinary images – such as this one, for instance:

Just figure this out: one day, we are sitting with my parents at home, reading a bulletin – that is, such, secret, AK [Home-Army] periodical of some sort. The door is locked up, and there’s fire made in the kitchen [range]. One of the stove-lids in the kitchen [range] is moved aside, just in case, just if, // then the bulletin should be thrown into the fire at once. So, we’re just sitting there, quietly, using, actually, the fire in the kitchen [range], not switching any light on, and then, someone’s inserting a key into our lock. So, my father instantly threw the bulletin into the kitchen [range], so it started burning. The door is getting opened with a key, someone else’s key, and there’s a woman entering, entering our apartment, a woman who lives in the same house, on the same floor, and who, // I don’t know, after all, who she was, but she was probably some German spy, in any case she incessantly had contacts with Germans, ←160 | 161→they turned up at her place constantly, there were constantly some libations going on, etc. I don’t know, sorry to say, whether [she was] just a German wench, or something else still. This is what I don’t know.

And the father says, ‘Excuse me, but what are you doing in here?’ She says, ‘I wanted to see if you are at home.’ ‘Well, and if there were none of us here, then?’ ‘Then I would lock [the door] up and go away.’ So, then, of course, no one said anything more, well, as no one knew what to say in such a situation. In any case, using the opportunity of her not being there, my father replaced the lock the following day, … as there was nothing else befitting to be done. Using the opportunity of her not being there, so she did not see that the lock is [being] replaced. I think she got to know on the occasion she wanted to have it unlocked again. So, such, well, unusual occurrences took place there, in that house, and several times so, anyhow.217

Her recollections of the experiences directly preceding the camp are equally detailed. This is a fragment of a different biographical story:

Well, so I took such a tiny jacket, madam, I had [it] made of my grandma’s topcoat. It was, sort of, velour, some kind of embossed, with a collar. My mother had a mole jacket, I can remember. And a tiny mole collar, such, ‘cause there was a black mole collar. Then, I had that one, and this jacket did I only have, you know. For I, I say, it’s summertime, this, isn’t it. Flip-flops on my feet, such, // actually, not quite flip-flops. Those were, such, perforated booties, on a low tiny cork-sole. The cork-shoes were, of the sort, en vogue then already. The heels uncovered, and, such, the toes uncovered. There was something like, // on such, see, such a, two or three centimetre[-high] cork-sole, such a, as if, // that was wedge-shaped heel, sort of. Then, I had those flip-flops [on], a white skirt and a blouse, red-, // a white one, red-dotted. This was the way I got dressed, more like a national way.

And there is still an untypical, precise reminiscence from inside the wagon the narrator was travelling in, with her mother, from Pruszków to Mauthausen. The close-up is targeted at the other persons on the train. This is all the more interesting – as a historical detail, although such details are not my focus herein – that in the accounts of men (particularly those from the Warsaw transports) there are almost no close-ups from within the wagons carrying them to the camps.

There were, // they had meat, some cold-meat. My mother asked, ‘Where have you got this from?’ And they said, ‘We have killed a hog, madam. And besides, we have a bakery.’ And they had breads, very good baker’s goods they had moreover. So, they had things to eat, then. [laughs] I can remember them very willingly sharing [these goods with the others]. Indeed, they treated very much [i.e. a great deal]: ‘But go ahead, madam!’ They always treated us, // I, can remember, I ate some ham. There, in ←161 | 162→the wagon. ‘Cause they had some pieces of a sort, you know. Whether that was marinated, or baked, or whatever? There were such small pieces of that ham. That was not, like, a ham cut, as it is into slices, but there were, like, pieces of ham. And so, you can see what it’s like. [laughs] Such things do happen too.

When characterising, earlier on, the reactions of the Varsovians transported to the camp in the summer of 1944, I stressed the absence, be it temporary absence, of images associated with Jewish dwellers of the city, with the Ghetto, or the Ghetto Uprising. I emphasised that these images only appeared when evoked by the questions; that they were constructed from safe afar, with a psychological distance, through a reverse telescope. This also held true, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, with the accounts whose authors had Jewish neighbours or passed by Jewish people as they were moving houses beyond the Ghetto, as together with their parents they populated apartments deserted by the Jews outside the enclosed district’s walls, having quit their previous residences now located inside the enclosure. This thread also appears in the reports of our female interviewees. The way it appears is, however, different and more complex, albeit the experience watched from the outside as a historical experience does not differ much from the one shared by this female narrator:

For me, those were very strange, as the acquaintances who lived in the same house – and I lived on Puławska St., as I said – suddenly started moving to somewhere else. For me, this was incomprehensible, for a child. That, what’s up: well, that couple, the lady I visited, with whom I talked, with whom I read books, and so forth, is leaving the house all of a sudden, bids farewell, crying, is leaving for somewhere else. She’s leaving. Says she’s leaving. I couldn’t learn, in fact, what it was like, about this trip, as my parents didn’t want to talk to me about it. At last, I was suspecting on my own, most diverse things. Then I could see some people walking along the street, armbands on their arms, having a star on those armbands. ‘A star’, ‘cause I didn’t know what that was. Then, and when already, // well, as typical with a child, a very, very stubborn and inquisitive one, overall, willing to know everything, I got at last to know that it was about the Jews, who must leave our house, that they have to go away from here, that no one knows if they’re ever to be back, that you’d rather say goodbye to them. … Well, indeed, not only some Poles moved in to their place. Since the house was part of the so-called German district, a plenty of Germans moved in, in place of those who had to go away from their home.

It is not so much a care for detail or so-called photographic memory218 that draws our attention in this latter image: it is, rather, the narrator’s focus on ←162 | 163→specific interpersonal relations, concrete individuals. When listening to this interview or, better still, watching its video-recorded version, we gain certainty that this image of Jewish neighbours is more significant to the narrator, and more difficult for her to bear, than the one she observed through the window in the spring of 1943, as evoked elsewhere while interviewed:

Well, so we’ve been reading a little; … there was a man hanging around the flat. Well, but what we most often did was looking at those horrid wreaths of smoke which were getting out of that Jewish quarter. Horrible, black ones, as anything which could be burning – was burning. Humans included. …

The Ghetto was on fire, in any case, and the view was, well, awful, when you’re sitting at home and watching through the window, as, / as this was the only way you could watch. You’re looking through the window: black clouds, clouds of smoke, the fetor, fetor unbelievable.219

A recollection similar to the one appearing in the second quote is also found in interviews with the men who lived in Warsaw at the time; they are however reluctant to mention their Jewish neighbours.

Such female focus, extending to what is occurring between individuals (and what is not in every case apparent), rather than to what people do and what is happening to them, may drive the memory and the (autobiographical) narrative toward some untypical camp-related images. Let us refer to them, as this section of our analysis is nearing conclusion:

No, only that green food was available. That food of ours had been finished yet, the sugar remained, and some amount of the spirit. Nothing else was there yet, but // just more. Of that sugar, there was, like, a box, a cardboard-box of such sugar we had. Well, then mom was dispensing that sugar. [pause] But one time, I went off and took this sugar and dropped it off to one of the prisoners. This was because on one side of those zelt [sic; i.e. tents], where you could not trespass, I could see some people. I went there. Me – I was so curious. I went there and saw, // there were those, wearing those caps, // those that put those caps off while standing at attention – they’d put the cap off, and all were in their striped uniforms; with the numbers, of course, as well, the camp numbers. And [there] was such a terribly poor, such a skinny man.

I went into a type of shrubs, like. … On the one side, upon, // on the one side, I could only see the barracks. … It was from where those barracks stood that the heftlings were coming over. Those functional ones, usually those came over only, there were no others. The others, the, like, dreadful ones, famished by then, I could see from the other side, then. But there, you could not walk in. It was banned to trespass there.

←163 | 164→

And there, the thing was that, // that such small bushes grew there. As I once crept up on there, on those bushes. ’Cause I wanted to see what was there. And there I could see people walking, but they weren’t, // they walked on some, like, // they walked there on stones. But, was it stairs? No, I don’t think so. They were chopping it. There were various heights of it. And here, not too far from me, not quite far, as I’d crept up on there, I crouched down inside those bushes. And, how I, / how foolish was I, wasn’t I? Was I supposed to expose my mother so? I was there twice, // for I threw the sugar [in]. I had stolen that sugar, which I had at home, and went [there] once again, threw the sugar too. And I told my mother, then, I think. And I saw, // there were only those in striped uniforms, in clogs on their feet, and they were so horribly, // and the Germans guarding them with their rifles. …

Yes, // I did go there, // day after day. That was one day after the other, for sure; for I was curious what it was like. All the more that, as I watched it so, and saw that ‘P’ [letter] – as he had, here [showing the spot], the number and the ‘P’ – I thought it was a Pole, that, and he was a political prisoner and a Pole. ‘P’, that was a ‘P’, that’s a Pole, you know. Yes. And it was for him that I dropped off that sugar in there. …

What I know is that the man was slim, young. … A starveling he was, sort of. He had, like, a rather prominent nose. I’d only looked at him, then I would, / I’d always recognise him. … He was walking there, went on with that stone. … I lay there for some time, / just for a moment I looked there. And I threw the sugar. The sugar, bare, no wrapping, a sugar lump. We had a single pack of sugar lumps. And I threw it like that. But whether he took it, this I don’t know. Don’t know. But he saw it. // [MKC, the interviewer:] And was there a moment that you looked at each other, you and him? // Yes there was, yes. Yes. That’s why I’m saying that he had such blue eyes. So, what was the distance I was at? Four meters, to five, from that; as he was walking, I saw, right by that chicken-wire. … And, the other day, as I saw him, then I only threw the sugar the farthest I could. I told my mom. Mom said, ‘I beg you, don’t you ever go there. ’Cause they’ll really shoot you dead. You’re not supposed to do it.’ ‘Verboten’ is what was written there, so you were told not to approach the place. A ban on approaching. …

’Cause I felt pity. I knew they were hungry. I simply knew they were hungry. Well, that’s a normal thing, after all. Why, what can I give to a man like this? Something that I’ve got, well, there’s nothing else I can give him. Only what I have got, then there was an amount of that sugar. My mom took, like, a quarter, she only had quarter a litre of a spirit; of a genuine one. She said, this should always… // And, the sugar. There was nothing else that we had. A bit, sort of, I think, of some bread she’d take, or of something. Things, like, and whatever there’d been at home.220

* * *

←164 | 165→

The women transported into Mauthausen during the Warsaw Uprising shared quite a similar lot. The arrival at the camp (the youngest were normally accompanied by their mothers), the initiation procedure – the ritual of passage into the camp universe, and, lastly, a few weeks stay at the camp tent outside of the main camp area:

The tent, not, // I think it was – and I’m saying ‘I think’, as I don’t know – but I should suppose it was, some sort of, devised for a hundred people maybe, for it was enormous. It stood on something-like, which had been a meadow sometime before. I’m saying, ‘had been, sometime before’, as it had long ago ceased to be any meadow.

There, they waited – for anything, really, as they were completely unaware of what to expect:

We did nothing, just waiting. For something, I don’t know for what.

As it turned out, what they waited for was a dispatch to forced labour in various localities of Upper Austria. There, their routes parted (in some cases, also the ways of mothers and their daughters), sometimes quite radically. Some of the women, and girls too, would be made workers at armament factories and other manufacturing plants.

I had a furnace in front of me, and had to operate that furnace, pour into it, // but in order to pour coke, the slag had to be first removed, right? But that was hard. I am not capable, now, // I could not manage this. So, I’d take something like, a sharp thing, I don’t know what it was called there, something sharp, in any case, [and] I broke that slag to pieces, then I extracted that slag from the furnace, put it on a shovel, dragged this shovel across the boiler station, as it was hard. And only [then] did I throw that slag somewhere out there, where there was the place fit for it.221

My task was to wash the bottles. … That is, there was an enormous tub; what I had to do was place the bottles into the large tub filled with water, after that, I, with both hands, those bottles, // I took the bottles, placed them into two, like, baths, // from the bottle washing machine, two brushes, // with both hands, and put them off. There the washing was done, water was poured into the bottle, and I put them off into the crates. Once washed up, into the crates. I had to wash those bottles well, because I was checked for their cleanness. Sometimes I got those bottles returned; but with no malignant comments made. I cannot say I had [= was getting] malignant comments with that. Only that I was soaked up, head to toe, in water. That is, from my chin down ←165 | 166→to my feet was I soaked. I worked there, more or less, till mid-December, I think, until I got pneumonia.222

Others were much luckier, if employed with family service businesses or assisting with Austrian households:

Oh, and in January it was that they sent me also, once, to a hairdresser’s outlet to assist in some tidying-up. And, the owner of that hairdressing outlet learned that I was, // that my parents had been hairdressers, then she came along and said that she didn’t want me to come over to her from the camp for sanitary reasons, you know. That she takes responsibility for me and, // that I should spend the nights at her place. Well, and then it was, // for so many months [laughs], I slept on a sheet then. I stayed at her place there till the very end of the war. It was at hers that I worked. …

Yes. And I did it secretly [i.e. manicuring, which was commonly banned then due to shortage of rationed chemicals (PF’s note)]. In such a paint booth. Those friends of hers would come in, and I did the manicure for them. [gaily] For me it was quite a lot, because, you know, they would give me tips. Not in the form of money, for I wouldn’t have bought anything with it, as I didn’t have the right to buy. But, say, they’d bring along an apple, a pear. Something-like, of sorts, whatever. Some piece of a cake brought from home, or what not. And that one [i.e. her landlady/employer] arranged for the [ration] cards for me then. Since she registered my residence, that I abode at her house. And I had the food [i.e. ration] cards. This means that already then I could go to a restaurant and have a card like that exchanged for food of some sort. A glass of milk per day plus something else, and she would always drop something off for me, and those ladies also, something more to eat. So, it was a bit better with the feeding. […] And I was at her place till the, // the war was over and even after the war I worked at hers for a month.223

Some of these different routes would intersect, if not meet again, later on, in the spring or summer of 1945. Such was the shared experience of the group of women at that point – their collective wartime trajectory. Diverse individual trajectories contributed to it, their common climax being their stay at Mauthausen. Our female interlocutors had only a brush with the camp, having to do with it just for a little while – and moreover, at that time constantly balancing on the border of being on the inside/outside of its world. They had made their way to the Nazi camp and had been through a complete passage ritual, but eventually were not consumed by the camp machinery. This is already visible in the earlier-quoted excerpts, where male inmates are perceived from an ←166 | 167→external-observer position – the position located outside of the camp’s social space, not being part of the camp’s male-prisoner community. This ought not to be surprising: the tents were put up beyond the walls, in any case; the idle waiting must have somehow contrasted with the bustle of the people wearing their striped uniforms, as observable from that position. The place itself was different from the one made into the striped-uniform wearers’ lot: seen from the outside, Mauthausen looked like a walled fortress, completely dissimilar to the makeshift tent lair:

No, there was nobody to guard us there. There was no guarding of us. Just those heftlings were coming over. No one guarded us.224

Yet, let us not get completely misled by this external perspective of looking at the camp, or by this topographic difference between the experiences of former female and male inmates. This short contact with the camp, which was typical to the women imprisoned at Mauthausen, who ‘had a brush’ with it, occurs to be a very deep-reaching and traumatic experience for them. This is because it implied a violent and brutal breach of their womanliness, since not a gender dimension of this aspect was at stake but rather, the biological dimension; at least, primarily biological.

2)The other dimension of the differences between the biographical stories of men and women is much harder to analyse, though it appears much plainer before a researcher than the one described first. This is, namely, the sphere of experiences taking place within the space of biological sex, sexuality, and corporeality or, more precisely still, its breach, infringement and violation. Clearly, one can consider the social mechanisms of constructing a taboo with which we surround these spaces of human experience and, though using such deconstruction, blur the border between the first and the second hereindiscerned dimension of experiencing the camp by women. It however seems that an intellectual operation of this sort would not be of much use for our present purpose, as it would not move the argument forward. It will occur that the question is not about discourses or borderlines delimiting the scopes of notions; there is something much more serious, and much more human at stake.

While associating with the testimonies of women imprisoned in concentration camps, we can find moments – some of them hardly visible but others, strikingly distinct – proving qualitatively different from all the other fragments of the narrative. We cannot deal with them quite well – they pose a research challenge – but an ethical challenge they imply is even stronger. We can see, ←167 | 168→hear, and feel that they conceal not only a breached taboo of human sexuality or carnality, but a real attempt on, and violation of, this delicate sphere of human identity.

The point is not merely sexual violence, as a narrow concept, or even its varieties, or crossed borderlines: embarrassment, humiliation, psychical violence. What we are after is extended, and actually focused on indirect violence, that is structural in a sense, inscribed in the ordinary camp experience. Such violence manifests itself in restricted intimacy, in a radical reduction of the possibility to satisfy one’s physiological and hygienic needs, in being deprived of adequate clothing and in a variety of other ways. The common denominator is that the integrity and intimacy of the imprisoned persons is infringed.225 Such infringement is obviously not limited to women, although these infringement/violation incidences appear much more frequently with respect to women. The consequences probably penetrate deeper; this is why what is just taken note of (or completely neglected because considered insignificant – in which case it is hard to refer to a breach, as a breach has assumedly to be subjectively experienced) gains acuteness to a much larger extent.

This is true already at the stage of transport from Pruszków to Mauthausen. In the interviews with the women, a recollection reappears that is absent in the men’s accounts – or, even if it appears there, it gets thematised otherwise, not so dramatically.

They opened in Czechoslovakia – it was the first opening of the wagons, and you could come out and fill, I’m afraid, // your physiological needs, but unfortunately, underneath the wagon. But this was impossible, either; impossible, unfortunately, as the Germans with their rifles were standing everywhere [around]. Everywhere. On the one side, and on the other. Well, you absolutely couldn’t relieve yourself. And this was so till the time grew late. But someone had just made a restroom of the other section of the wagon. That was what we didn’t need anymore. Someone’s torn out a piece of board. And there you would walk to settle the matter; to the wagons being ←168 | 169→in motion. That’s what it was like. So, you could manage that. … But burdensome it was, for that was a withholding of the normal course of life, the functioning of your organism, for a few days.

On the second meeting with her, this narrator depicted a similar (tape-recorded) image:

The worst thing was about that relieving. It was a disaster. Well, relieving yourself, well, to give this debt back to nature, it was so tough that I only did this when at Mauthausen. I found it very hard while there still. Also, this was with no shield, in sum, ‘cause that, such, two, such, carrycots, // actually, // kind of, // there, once in Mauthausen, there were, like // this was carried by two people. Those were, like, // how’d I draw it for you? Well, I would have to draw this, madam. Those were, as if, like // double, // two rods. In the middle of those two rods, as if, composite with some sort of // crate, in which there was some bucket. A bucket stood there. And two people carried it. One on the front, [the other] one on the other [side], and now please tell me: when they placed it in the middle, then everyone’s watching, where’s it to relieve yourself? You had to sit on that. Truly, there were hardships, enormous. It was the same when they opened us in those wagons already, and you could get off on some railway sidings. And as I was just starting there, and there, a German with a rifle stood and watched if I didn’t, // if I, // where would I have gone, madam? 226

The central moment in the former prisoners’ autobiographical stories is their camp initiation, rituals of passage, the clashing against the concentration camp and getting shocked and paralysed with it. These recollections return as expressive images in almost all the narrations – whether female or male. But it is just in the women’s narrative that the image is dominated by the experience of brutal denudation, exposure, nakedness, and infringed intimacy. This is what has been most strongly impressed in the women’s memory, as it threatened their deepest sense of integrity, mutilated their self-image while exposing them to the view of others. The men we have recorded were subject to an almost identical procedure upon entering the camp; though routine as it was, the interactive context varied by type of situation – with men or women entering the same male camp. This might perhaps be the only reason why nakedness reappears so strongly in the women’s memoirs – as a trace of a non-extinguished trauma. When reading the following excerpts, it must be borne in mind that the nudity means a denudation before the SS personnel ‘operating’ the new Zugang, as well as before the male inmates. I remind of this circumstance as it becomes concealed in the reminiscences.

←169 | 170→

My mother says, ‘Well, looks like that’s the end; looks like this is our end.’ Well, but there was no option to retreat. We went to that bath. Well, they of course took all of our clothes away from us, which were passed to a delousing station. In turn, we were led into a grand room, a dark one, obviously. That is, there were no windows there, apart from some small windows higher up. Later on I learned what those small windows actually were, and what that was. I didn’t know then. And some time after that, water was poured upon us, a bathing was procured for us. That water was wonderful [ironically], ‘cause it was so awfully cold that it is so astounding that water can be this cold at all. I don’t know, [it was] probably supplied from some spring. The water was pissing out of the top, the bottom, the side – everywhere. There was nowhere to take refuge from that water, and it was so terribly cold that it’s hard to figure out if you could bear it there any longer. The water was running on, I don’t know for how long; in any case, when it was tapped off, someone there said that now they’d sure pour the gas in. Hah, but there was silence.

Nobody would utter a word. We were waiting: will they open the gate through which they’ve let us in, or not? Well, after however-many minutes, it was opened. We walked out of that room, naked; happy that we’re still alive. After some time, maybe three hours later, or maybe more, // we stood there naked, of course, waited for our clothes from that delousing station. Well, when we received the clothes from the delousing station, then there were the lice: genuine, beautiful, big beautiful lice, which we received together with our clothes.227

An extremely similar image reappears in another narration:

This was, // yes, this was right behind the gate. As the gate was crossed yet, to the left, I saw this. And then we were separated, there. Since there, in the transport, there were men too. So the men were separated at once into that main camp, and us, // and the women, // and there were a few children, then they drove us forth into a place, like. They told us to get undressed naked. Take off, you know, the clothes. And after, across, such, two rooms we were walking. There were plenty of Germans there and there, they, out of that, // I’m not one-hundred-percent sure, but rather, yes – they selected out of those naked women [some] for a, such a, brothel which was there for those military men, within the camp. And, we walked into the room, such that was clad with tiles. Well, and they tapped off the water. And then I was told we’d been lucky they had taped the water off; for, in that place, they could’ve taped off the gas. Then, people [would go] to the crematorium, wouldn’t they. There was. Well, so then, we, // they didn’t give us striped uniforms, only did they throw out, after, such, // after disinfection, our clothes; on a large, like, heap, and said, ‘Choose yourself your clothes.’ And, so we were searching then within it.228

←170 | 171→

Another woman we have taken a recording of stayed in the camp together with the last quoted interviewee. The way she paints the initiation and bathing scene is even more precise. In her image, there is no water running from the taps; otherwise, both ladies were together at the camp baths, and consequently, one of these memoirs contains a factographic error. Which one, namely, is not my task to resolve; such resolution is perhaps impossible today. For me, more important are the significances or meanings added by these narrators to those experiences. Among these meanings, across the three accounts, the conviction that gas could have been released from the taps reappears very strongly, that the place was not a camp bath but a gas chamber instead. This tension penetrates each of these narrative images – what is more, they are founded upon it. Whether water was released or whether the taps were used at all is less important than the conclusive outcome: no gas was let in. For such sense-making effort of the memory, it is not primarily important that Polish women brought to Mauthausen were not killed – especially, in a gas chamber, albeit there was an operational gas chamber at the time. Let us now trace the other image from inside the camp baths and from the very same moment:

We would’ve been standing, // it was, I think, // what was the most tragic thing about the camp. This is because, listen: we stood there and my mummy hugged me against her, [pause] but my aunts were not there. There was Ala. She hugged me against her, and so we stood there. And the water did not run. And then, someone at the other end, there, // it was a room, sort of, // such one like this room. [pause] Maybe a little bigger, but, I don’t think so. And somebody at this other end, there // someone intoned, ‘Who gives oneself over to the care of his Lord’229 And everyone started singing. This was tragic for me then. I realised then that it was the end already, right then. Mum hugged me against her and thus we endured till the moment, // and all of a sudden, the door is opening on the other side. ‘Weg! Raus! Raus! Raus!’ And, those clothes lay there. Those same ones, dirty. Removed, or what? Or perhaps someone had removed them there. And I just couldn’t find my shoe. In one shoe, // with the shoe, something like that, // but later, someone picked [it] up for me, gave it to me; said, ‘Here’s some shoe yet’. Someone gave me that shoe, some lady. And I, with that shoe, // and we were thrown out, // led through to the roll-call ground. For the first time. …

Someone said, ‘Oh God, oh God! A miracle.’ Someone said so. But, // oh yes, like this, there was something like this.230

The exit from the baths and covering the body with one’s regained clothes puts an end to a stage in the camp initiation whilst not overruling the threats and breaches of the sphere of intimacy and sexuality. On the contrary, the entry ←171 | 172→into the camp draws them near, and intensifies them. This may also pertain to coerced labour – sometimes so much as to an equal degree. No access to clean water and no opportunity to be separated in order to enable psychologically safe performance of basic hygienic actions is such an instance of violated integrity.231 Other such instances are dirt and filth, lice, and stench. All this obviously extends to men, but it appears more clearly and distinctly in the female accounts, proving furnished with certain other – or rather, some additional – meanings related to female sexuality. The following is an excerpt from a report of a female interviewee who first got to the camp and then to forced labour, as a girl, rather than a mature woman. Yet, the said meanings are legible in this piece as well:

It is hard to name, madam [laughs], I don’t know whether this can be named that any conditions prevailed [there]. There was simply the entry to that lager, there were the bunks, three-deck ones. There was a blanket on each bunk, uncased, of course, stridently, of course, // dismally dirty. Well, and a pump, like, there was a single pump in the centre of, such a, square. On our way back from work, well, everyone had enough, didn’t they, since from six in the morning till six in the evening, as I’m saying, it was autumn then already, so it was dark and cold, and rainy. We were fed up with all of [that]. As I’m saying, we got a slice of bread with marmalade and some piece of margarine, and some black coffee. And everyone there, sorry to say, would wash themselves with the right hand, for the water was cold, so it was hard to wash yourself otherwise. With the right hand in that, // by that well, or otherwise, you would carry for yourself, into [in] a bowl, some water into that room – I’m not sure how to name it, that. And you would collapse, sorry to say …, like a log, on that bunk, in order to get up again at five in the morning. For it was some five kilometres [away]. You had to walk with those clogs on. Well, then you can figure out what sort of a walk that was. Before you reached the factory, before you clocked in and started your work at six o’clock. // Well, then, // what I’m saying is that only a strong man could bear that. A little human like me, thirteen-years-old, was not capable of getting, // of managing this, those duties of twelve-hour work[ing day], that pyza single [a dumpling that the ←172 | 173→factory’s female workers were given for their lunch on regular basis], and that slice of bread with marmalade. I was constantly, constantly hungry, wasn’t I. … Lager 80 Steyr. This was its name. …

And then, when I was sweeping, I only thought of not getting those blisters cracked, for I was going mad with the pain.232

One of our interviewees turned up at Mauthausen as an adult woman: she was twenty-three. Her lot was untypical – shortly after going through the passage/entry ritual she got engaged as a nurse or paramedic to care for the other women from the Warsaw transport:

And they announced thus: that if anyone has any sanitary training behind her, that she respond. Well, so I had this, so I responded. Some seven women of us applied. And they organised, like, a tent, as if an outpatient clinic. They told us that what the Germans were after was not to cure, to help, only that the Germans feared, for that was a transport from the rising, so that there was no epidemic of something, you know. And we, and them, turned it so that we rescued. I had a task, like, that I walked around the camp, for I was apparently dressed as a nurse, ‘cause I was allowed to walk in this way, so, // and we were picking out the women who were ill, or wounded, injured from the time of the rising.233

Self-identification with a role like this offered a completely different field of observation than the one women remaining all the time at the tent camp, passively waiting for further resolutions, might have had. The most important of those observations, if the eagerness with which it is evoked can serve as a measure of such importance, concern instances of psychological infringement of sexual integrity, of violation of the sphere of intimacy or, at times, violence ‘as such’. Let me quote the following, somewhat lengthy, excerpt:

It was known that, // that they took certain women to, // to do some experiments with. It was known that certain ones went away to Ravensbrück. I know that someone – I don’t know [how] many, // two or three were guilty of something and, it seems, they were, // they got to the gas chamber. But this is what I don’t know exactly. // [AK, the interviewer:] And those ones who were sick, and the sickness could not be concealed: what was happening to them? // Well, you know, madam, we tried to hide [that]. And once they were back at those barracks, then, as then, as there were the storied beds, then they would lie down on that lower bed and the others sat here and pretended to talk. And those ones were in the rear, behind them. So that no one ←173 | 174→recognised them, that they had anything done [to them]. So, this was like it. And then, when, let’s say, [anyone of them] was on her way back from that, then someone else would walk with her too. They’d walk like this, as if both, that they talked, so that nobody paid attention that she was there with us. Then, on this side, that’s what I know, what it looked like, but how they were sitting there, well, that’s what I really know little of. Yea, for I was very busy. I was walking, searching for those, // for some feared to own it. ‘Cause they had a fear. Well, then you had to somehow help them out in that, so that they decided to move. For some feared that they could be recognised, that they, // there was something not quite all-right with them. Well, and those doctors said that if the Germans detect [this], then they’ll take [them] away and, to the, // won’t allow to do anything like that. ‘Cause they’ve been sent over just to prevent an epidemic. They were to disinfect everything, so that there was no rising-implied epidemic. That the people, those from the rising, brought something along with them. Then, they’d sprinkle around, various things like that were being done. So that, as to avoid, as if, // and what we were doing was done, like, discreetly.

[AK:] Were the people cured officially? // Officially, not. They weren’t cured officially. This was done, like, discreetly; unnoticeably. Why, but some of those women needed to be aided. You know, madam, there were also many violated during the rising. I don’t know when it was, in what a way this was occurring, but there were such that were torn up, even; bleeding. Then, it was very hard to remedy any like thing. // [AK:] Were the women abused? // Yes, they were. That, at once [tapping on the tabletop], at the beginning. As they stripped us naked, then, already there, and then, // the Germans picked up the women for themselves. And they were [abused] there, weren’t they. // [AK:] And were there any cases happening that, for instance, a woman tried to defend herself against something like this? Was it possible at all then? // Well, there, // there, it was not possible. Once they took her there, well, then she was sitting in that room, well, and, // if she’d said “no”, then, [she] would’ve been [taken] to the gas chamber, eh? No one would’ve, with her, // he would find another one for him, yeah? In turn, there were some violated ones who didn’t want to quite admit it. But, for instance, I, some time, being in the lavatory, for beside me, I could see everything, // they were horribly made, // they didn’t even want to admit that. So, this sometime in the course of the rising, don’t know; as it was hard to get to know something from them. For there was fear, in fact, that what’d I say to the other one, so it wouldn’t do me harm, yeah? So, there was rather nothing like, some, conversation. Well, between us, those nurses, we then were talking of what we’re doing.234

In my initial, distinctive reading of the autobiographical stories of former female inmates of Mauthausen, I should like to pause at one more moment, appearing very distinct. What I have in mind is the recollection of liberation, getting freed from the obligation to do forced labour (as we have seen, this did not always stand for an actual instant termination of work performed in a given place); and, ←174 | 175→the reminiscence of the first weeks of freedom and the way back home – or, the way in a direction other than home.

This moment is distinct in a twofold manner. Identically as with the male accounts, it forms an important biographical breakthrough – an entry into different, non-camp experiences (as we saw it before, ‘different’ in this case does not imply ‘freedom from suffering/coercion’, non-trajectorial). As completely opposed to the interviews with males, this time is marked in female reminiscences with the opening of new threats, new perils and with the activation of their accompanying dreads or awes. These threats and fears are set in the presently analysed dimension of female experience of the camp or, as a broader concept, female experience of (the) war. They pertain to their sexuality, psychophysical integrity – the most delicate and the strongest protected sphere in a human. It is no surprise, then, that its violation is so solidly anchored in the autobiographical memory, and in the identity.

Well, and then an ordeal began again for the people, // for the women chiefly, being just then in the camps, // in the camp. Even for us too. You had really to request being shut, as these are the first troops which were, // couldn’t discern between a Polish and a German woman.

When it came to the next meeting, a few weeks later, the reminiscence of that particular moment had grown denser, with a little help from the interviewer asking the questions.

Well, those are the first, unfortunately, those first troops, of which I didn’t know, madam. That’s luck. Aha! They ceased shutting us up. At once. The wicket there was opened, // there was. There, it’s known that the women were. And those first American troops as well, they saw the Gasthaus, then they came into our place, too. And I was dressed by my mother in a kerchief on my head, and she told me to go to bed upstairs, hide my hair. she dressed me like a babushka of sorts, so that me, there, // for those too were such troops which could, it was said, draw from the beds Austrian women as well, also. This is what happened sometimes.

[MKC:] And were any such occurrences ever happening in Braunau alone?235 // Not in our lager, I mean, there was a situation that upstairs somewhere, in some room, about which I didn’t even know, // if some Austrian woman hid herself there, // and that, they said, was an actress. Upstairs. And she was found, dragged out by a military man, some American, and well, she resisted strongly, then he, madam, pricked her with a dagger or something, on the bottom. Into her buttock, thus he put the dagger. She even came over to us, seeking help. But there, upstairs, she must’ve hidden away ←175 | 176→on her own. That // amid the Polish women. He husked her out there, I think. She did not go up there then, upstairs, as the blood was being spilled. Someone bandaged her there. But next, somehow like, I don’t know if those were shut after that yet, // I think, yes, they’d shut probably for the night later on. But this is what you couldn’t [do], as they ordered to open. There were scarce men there. … // [MKC:] That is to say, there was nobody to defend you, the ladies. // No, why, how come? // [MKC:] But I understand that, beside this, it didn’t go as far as…? // No, no, no. There were no like bad incidents. Well, once they learned that Poles were there, they evaded Polish women, // then they’d evade this, even. They husked out, rather, those // Austrian women.236

That fear of getting ‘husked out’ and the sexual violence (in the broad sense, as mentioned before) forms a reappearing experience in the autobiographical narrative of women ‘liberated’ in concentration camps (and, in their native localities as well), women expelled or ‘evacuated’ as part of post-war resettlements.237 Moments before, those women were on different sides of the warfront. The fragment quoted above is by no means representative; instead, it is a sign, a call slogan for the everyday common fears of women, which, in this sense, were ordinary at that time.

All those hitherto-discussed female experiences based on and/or related to and/ or associated with the camp have impressed a deep traumatic mark or stigma in the memory, identity and psyche of the women surviving Mauthausen. My wish is that the words of Mauthausen survivors I am about to quote, as the last citation in this chapter, may remind one that the camp’s aftermath included physical mutilations. These include, if this is the right way to put it, the fundamental and deepest mutilations.

And the most important thing my mother had was something which was an unlikely matter. My mother had, such, two abscesses on her nipples, that you’d place a bowl in front of it, and she, // there was something flowing out of her, from those two nipples. [This was so for] nine months. She was treated, the family provided for us then. She underwent treatment wherever it was possible, with all the doctors. At last, she came across a doctor, gynaecologist, who found one thing: that we must’ve been getting some things that hindered, // in the food, over the entire period of stay, maybe not in this camp, maybe it already started when in the camp, which had an influence on the hormonal courses. He was not able to treat it yet, but said it was as if she were walking ←176 | 177→around pregnant, nine months. And I had my process obstructed also, of the menstruation. I didn’t get [it]. Didn’t get [it], // at all, // everything had come to a stop; owing to my stay there. There, I had something like a holdback, // there was a hampering. And my mother had her breast non-healing [for] nine months. It all ended after the nine months. It closed up and stopped suppurating, and that was it. So, this is like as if she had nine months of that, some sort of, illness, isn’t it so. Mom says, ‘Listen, [this was] like I’d walk around pregnant for nine months’. Then, she got steadier in that illn-…, // in that pain. In that psychical and physical pain, and she went to work.238

And, lastly, a fragment follows of another account, with the interviewer trying to understand a story – which she found seemingly incoherent – of looking after the ‘grandchildren’, their upbringing and playing with them. It appeared that the attempt to clarify this incoherence, ‘illogicality’ has unveiled a scar left over from a deep injury, a physical and psychical mutilation:

[AK, the interviewer:] Do you have any children, you and your husband? // No, we didn’t have any children. No, you know. You know, in the camp, something… was given to the women. We had no… And then, the unbelievable troubles. [Tape ends; the talk is resumed, on “grandchildren” now, with the narrator’s husband participating.]

[AK:] You have mentioned the camp. ‘Cause I should like to resume this point, to find out still: You said, the women were getting something? // Yes, so we didn’t, // we got no period, so, [there was] something, // something that must have been added in the food, that we weren’t getting then. Well, and afterwards, after the war, I was personally getting much trouble. A Polish physician, such one, said I need to have removed, // after all, I had my diabetes then already. And, in those times, women with diabetes then, didn’t, // didn’t deliver babies, as this was almost impossible. It is different today. Today, they can have children. This is why we have none, only such ones do we have, // I am the only daughter, never had any brother or any sister. But my husband comes from a fairly large family. And there it is, his sisters’ grandchildren, great-grandchildren, then, we, you know… 239

* * *

This ‘female excerpt’ would probably have been different if it had been me interviewing the three ladies (or at least one of them). I would perhaps have understood more, but maybe I would be getting even more doubts, including ethical – about whether, and what namely, I should/am allowed to shed light on within those accounts; what to draw out of them. Beside this, the accounts ←177 | 178→themselves would have been different. This is not to say that I have not recorded any interviews with female prisoners of Nazi concentration camps: on the contrary, I have, and am positive that a number of observations I made on those occasions now help me read/listen, and to better understand these female stories. I have decided to herein consistently subject to analysis the accounts of Mauthausen survivors, so they could be related to the same social space, the same camp universe. This ‘external’ limitation allows, I believe, for the more reliable extraction of the diversity of the camp experiences and the complexity and multidimensional nature of the social world of this specific concentration camp. My intention was to give the floor to the forgotten female inmates of Mauthausen, approaching their reports as testimonies – not so much as historical facts as, rather, a fading memory which we have managed to make a ‘last-minute’ record of. That these former inmates are forsaken now, be it in comparison with their Auschwitz or Ravensbrück ‘peers’, is what I have no doubt about, as I have already specified it.

To conclude, I owe a word of explanation, clarification, apposition and more personal afterthought.

On evoking in this chapter the numerous images from autobiographical narratives of the former female inmates of Mauthausen, as recorded by my female colleagues (it being extremely important that women talked to other women then), I endeavoured to reduce my comments to a minimum – as a deliberate decision. The doubt however remains whether the decision is satisfactory. To what extent am I, or can I at all be, reliable while speaking of the specificity of female experience? Being a male, to what extent am I capable of grasping it at all, and render it at all comprehensible to others? Even if I endeavour to do this chiefly through quotations, it is me that makes a selection and sets them in an order (while rejecting some others). The point is, I cannot give a good answer to these questions and I do not think I would ever be able to. I am not the one to evaluate my doings in this area – female readers of the above pieces of analysis are the right persons to talk to.

The issue would probably be much simpler if I confined myself to describing the historical experience of the group of Mauthausen inmates of my present interest, building a narrative on them similar to those usually constructed by historians who tend to synthetically outline the various categories of inmates: Polish, Russian, Spanish, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, etc., viewing their objects through reversed binoculars, at a distance – a cold distance, without too many close-ups on concrete individuals. What I have decided to embark on is a completely different, riskier narrative strategy. Now, how do I defend it, given so many arising doubts?

I have one important argument to defend my position, or rather, there are several arguments which, I think, can conclusively be boiled down to a single one. I have namely proposed an excursus or initial reconnaissance here in order to unveil the female camp narrations, in their function as narratives of the womanly experience of being enclosed in a Nazi concentration camp, rather than, ←178 | 179→simply, as female camp narrations – this being a subtle but very basic differentiation. The point is to try and read them in a different way; to read deeper into these testimonies. Should this attempt encourage others to embark on such interpretations, this ‘female excursus’ does make sense. The interviews with female Mauthausen prisoners I have evoked here, analysed in a tentative and selective manner, are available in the form of audio/video recordings and/or transcripts, remaining open to subsequent interpretations and research done by scholars of either sex.


200 From the account of Sylwin Jóźwiak, available at the Oral History Archive, the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House, Warsaw; ref. no. MSDP_027.

201 Cf. A Baumgartner, Die vergessenenFrauen von Mauthausen. Die weilblichen Häftlinge des Konzentrationslager Mauthausen und ihre Geschichte, Wien 1997, p. 93 ff. I have based the present historical background on this important study by Baumgartner, being the only monograph on women in Mauthausen, issued – furnished with a clearly apt title – over fifty years after the camp was liberated, now that historical studies on Mauthausen have filled up numerous library shelves.

202 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (as recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

203 A. Baumgartner, op. cit., p. 219 ff.

204 G. Botz, B. Halbmayr, H. Amesberger, ‘‘Zeitzeugen- and Zeitzeuginnenprojekt Mauthausen’. Genese, Projektstruktur und erste Ergebnisse’, in C. Schindler (ed.), Jahrbuchdes Dokumentationsarchivs des österreichischen Widerstandes, Münster 2004, p. 40 ff.

205 These include fragments of video interviews with Anna Bergman (UK), Ewa Lukacs (Israel) and Maria Catherina van Bueren (Netherlands).

206 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

207 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

208 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

209 I make this generalised statement by referring to my experiences related to the recordings I have made with female inmates of Ravensbrück, Auschwitz and Majdanek as part of two KARTA Centre documentary projects: A women’s testimony: females and totalitarianism (2003–4) and International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project (2005-6).

210 The interview with Irena Rowińska has been video-recorded; the other two are audio-recorded.

211 Referring to the ‘Columbuses Generation’. The term denotes the generation of young Polish intelligentsia born soon after Poland regained her independence in 1918, and whose adolescence was marked by dramatic experiences of WW2, especially the Warsaw Uprising. The term comes from the novel Kolumbowie. Rocznik 20 (1957) by Roman Bratny, who was an exponent of that generation.

212 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

213 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

214 See A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 42–43.

215 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

216 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

217 Ibidem.

218 Why ‘so-called’ rather than genuine, see in T. Maruszewski, op. cit.; in specific, chapter 5: ‘Generative processes in the autobiographical memory’ and remarks therein on the ‘record now’ mechanism – ‘flash’-like operation of memory (pp. 98–106).

219 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

220 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

221 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

222 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

223 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

224 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

225 I owe these distinctions – along with much inspiration followed up in this chapter – to the penetrating and sensitive analyses carried out by Helga Amesberger, Katrin Auer and Brigitte Halbmayr in their important work Sexualisierte Gewalt. Weibliche Erfahrungen in NS-Konzentrationslagern, Wien 2004. Based upon their interviews with female inmates of Ravensbrück, these authoresses disclose various manifestations of sexual violence against women within the camp. Sexualisierte Gewalt, i.e. ‘sexualised violence’, is the notion they consistently stick to in their analyses – as contrasted with sexuelle Gewalt – ‘sexual violence’. The former is much broader in scope, as it extends to certain less plain instances of infringed sexual integrity (see, in particular, pp. 18 ff. of the aforesaid book) and is much better fit for description of female camp-related experiences.

226 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

227 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

228 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

229 Polish church hymn, with lyrics by Jan Kochanowski (16th c.), after Psalm 91.

230 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

231 Cutting the hair also belongs here, though it did not appear with this particular Warsaw transport of women to Mauthausen. Even such routine action, which extended to the males as well, bears a perceptible attempt on the identity, corporal and psychical integrity. This violation occurs on a symbolic level. The haircutting motif appears in many accounts of former inmates, including female prisoners of Auschwitz or Ravensbrück. The meaning of the images of haircutting, loss of the hair, reaches beyond the one of similar images recalled by male interviewees. While concerning, in objective terms, the same action carried out on them, the experiences implied by it are different. For more on this point, cf. H. Amesberger, K. Auer, Brigitte Halbmayr, op. cit. – in particular, the subchapter Haare [The hair], pp. 80 ff.

232 From the account of Irena Rowińska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_165 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

233 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

234 Ibidem.

235 The small town of Braunau on the Austrian-German border was Adolf Hitler’s birthplace. The narrator worked at a local brewery and later on, in a Mann weaponry plant.

236 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

237 At this point, I can refer to the experiences of my KARTA Centre colleagues, and my own experience gained while recording the interviews with females: former Nazi concentration camp inmates, forced labourers, German women inhabiting until 1945 what is today the Polish territory, liberated by the Red Army. A strong fear of breach of sexual integrity, which usually was the fear of rape, during the anomy period in the earliest post-war years, appears as a constant motif in those stories.

238 From the account of Irena Norwa, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/DSH, ref. no. MSDP_033 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

239 From the account of Alina Krajewska, available at the Oral History Archive, OK/ DSH, ref. no. MSDP_002 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).