The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective
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.
III. Roman Strój
Roman Strój was born on 13th April 1929 in Kozielec, Pomeranian Province (Voivodeship). Since his early childhood, he lived in Warsaw – his parents had moved there in search of employment opportunities. Before the war and during the Occupation, he attended an elementary school. Shortly before the Warsaw Uprising, he got involved in conspiratorial activities. Arrested just after the Uprising broke out, he was deported, together with a mass of civilians, to the transit camp in Pruszków near Warsaw, then was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau and subsequently, in September 1944, to Mauthausen (camp no.: 103151). In November, he was sent to one of the subcamps in the Vienna peripheral area, and worked there at the local armaments factories (Wien-Schwechat). In April 1945, he returned, in a death march, to Mauthausen. After the liberation, he was cured in several hospitals in Germany, and stayed for some time in transit camps for former prisoners and coerced labourers in Regensburg and Wetzlar. He was back in his home country in 1946. Roman completed his secondary education then. He subsequently worked in several public institutions, as a clerical worker, until 1980, and retired thereafter. Roman Strój lived in Warsaw, and was member of the local club of former prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
I visually encountered Mr Strój from time to time when attending the meetings of the Warsaw club of former Mauthausen inmates. He attended these meetings frequently, of not on a regular basis – but was not particularly active there, in contrast to many of his colleagues: he would be seated somewhere at the back, not ever taking the floor. Our first, and short, chat took place as we once incidentally met at the Powązki Cemetery (so-called Military Cemetery) in Warsaw, in April 2002. It was then that we made an initial appointment, to meet and talk, and get the conversation recorded. Then, we stayed in touch on the phone, refixed the meeting date several times, to eventually meet on 31st July 2002.
We were both prepared for an interview situation – obviously, each of us in his peculiar way. I had had a few recording sessions of this sort to my credit. Roman could only get prepared based on how he figured out such an interview – he had never produced such an account (and had never been interviewed). He had not wrote down his memoirs, either. This was one of the major reasons for why I wanted to meet him in person and get his biographical story recorded. Although it is much easier to get access to those who many a time told their story or wrote memoirs, oral history projects – including the one on former Mauthausen inmates – are meant, as I emphasised earlier, to give the voice to those who have rather rarely, if ever, made themselves heard. Biographically oriented sociology is familiar with this incentive, too.
It befits to say now that the lack of narrative skills in my Interlocutor drew my attention when I decided to choose when I had to select one interview among the ←321 | 322→many interviews on Warsaw/Warsaw Uprising available, in order to pay a particularly close look at it.
The transition, or rather, leap from an ordinary or typical daily interaction to the central point of our meeting: the out-of-the-ordinary situation of creation/recording an autobiographical story did not take us a lot of time. The earlier phone talk anticipating this interview eliminated the need for me to explain my interest and presence once again, or the very idea behind the documentation project we were participating in together. There was no one else in his apartment, which made the focus easier. Shortly afterwards, we saw ourselves seated at the table; on switching on my recording equipment, I expressed my routine request for the man to identify himself and say his date of birth:
Well, then. My name’s Roman Strój, born 13th April 1929 in the locality of Kozielec, the former Pomeranian Voivodeship. Well, that’s what is now Bydgoszcz [Voivodeship], or… And, what’s up still…
There is nothing to add at this point (but indeed could be: many individuals started their unrestrained biographical narration from this point onwards): there is even more than just the first name, surname and DOB. There is a significant location – significant not in terms of its being, merely, the place of his birth, but of a meaning as this autobiography unfold. Also, in the context of the interactive situation we are within: we are meeting each other in the inner centre of Warsaw, I have arrived to record an account with a Warsaw resident and 1944 Uprising participant, former prisoner once taken to a camp in a Warsaw transport, and member of the local former Mauthausen inmates’ milieu. Given such circumstances, the name of ‘Kozielec’, once evoked, signifies some very distant, rather vaguely defined place, somewhere in the pre-war Pomeranian Province, today’s Bydgoszcz region. In fact, the Voivodeship of Bydgoszcz ceased to exist; hence, Province of Kuyavia-and-Pomerania is what Roman should have had in mind.282
But why to focus so strongly on Roman Strój’s place of birth, if the man belittles it? Well, just because of this. There is no coincidence in the fact that the name of his family locality only appears once throughout the interview, as part of the self-introduction, alongside the other basic personal details – as if read out from an ID, although he utters it from memory. Not from the memory of his experience but from the memory of information: he is aware he was born in Kozielec. Kozielec, however, has remained an undomesticated place, one that does not belong to the narrator. Warsaw is his ‘right’ place, although he makes no such direct statement. The thing is that traces of this city will (re)appear at multiple moments as this narrative unfolds.283←322 | 323→
The passage from the introduction to a free biographical story is preceded by me asking him to tell a story of his life.
As I said, I was born, // so, my father, a farmer by background, was in Warsaw from some point, but that though extortion, in fact, well, a life situation, because he was jobless. And well, he sought a place for himself in Warsaw, and he found one [laughs], he found one, let’s say, // the thing is that my elder siblings, the brother and the sisters, took, such a, casual work. And well, it began, // it began with taking a residence in Marymont [district] in Warsaw, the year was, I think, nineteen, nineteen thirty, somewhere around, so to be right exact. And well, that whole life career of mine started, which means, from my childhood, there, to the kindergarten, when in the kindergarten, the years were, say, thirty-five already, thirty-six, nineteen-. Well, and the primary school in Marymont, in Kolektorska Street, there I completed, I should think, one grade. Later on, in Gostyńska Street, that was in Wola [district], I should think, Gostyńska. And after completion of these few grades, the war broke out … and we moved to Koło [area], in Obozowa Street. And there, in Obozowa Street, I entered, with my mates from that block-of-flats, as there, such a, ‘Stefan Żeromski’ workers’ housing estate, in Obozowa it is. And there, in block nineteen, my mates, aged fourteen, fifteen, and so on, formed, like, an organisation, well, an AK [Home-Army] one. A sergeant or warrant officer came to us, a WO it was in fact, an elderly man. And he ran those classes with us, in the event of a rising. That was not yet a rising, then; that’s still before the rising. And I attended [there]. In fact, my brother lived, my blood brother lived in, in Boer- [i.e. Boernerowo, an area in Warsaw], // in Koło, and I still lived at that time in Marymont. And from Marymont did I come to my mates from that block-of-flats, for I also lived there, a bit. Once, a little in here, then, a little in there. And finally, before the very Uprising, there was, like, a situation that our organisation, that one, got divided: some went to the AL [= People’s Army] while the others remained with the AK. I remained with the AK.
The beginning of this autobiography goes beyond the author’s personal experience. His knowledge of what, and why, had happened before he was born and in the first unmemorable years of his life forms an integral part of his own story. These pieces of knowledge have a status equal to his own experience, and is integrated with this experience to the extent rendering it undeterminable at which point the ‘actual’ ←323 | 324→knowledge ends and the experience begins. Finding the demarcation line seems not quite necessary, as both areas form part of the Interviewee’s identity, and of his self-image.284 This identity has from the very outset had elements determining the financial situation of his family, which was, to make it clear straight away, very poor. Roman’s coming into the world in 1929, the year marked by the beginning of the great economic depression, which took an extremely severe course in Poland, must have additionally deteriorated that situation. Poverty incited Roman’s parents to make a daring decision to leave for Warsaw and to look for earning opportunities there. The hope for making their situation improved must have been really big: they set off for the capital city with a baby aged 12 months plus four elder kids but without any specific profession which could have facilitated the search or make it more focused. Part of this interiorised family history is the earned work done by his elder brothers and sisters who had to contribute to supporting their family.
Roman’s first childhood images based on his experience (which is lived through consciously as his own) are infixed in the topography of the poor workers’ districts of Warsaw: the streets named Kolektorska, Gostyńska, Obozowa, evoked in order to define the spatial framework of Interviewee’s spatial world, in the first place. He moved from one address, and school, to the other, remaining throughout within a single milieu, the universe of the workers’ area of Wola: the mates from the block-of-flats, the ‘Stefan Żeromski’ workers’ housing estate.285 This is where Roman ←324 | 325→Strój’s ‘life career’ started, to use his own self-ironic term – probably, the most apt one, as he is the best-versed expert in this career.
The outbreak of the war is just mentioned by Roman in passing, and, really, for the record, rather than to evoke any specific images from September 1939 or the city under Occupation thereafter. The moment the war enters is no clear biographical caesura. The Warsaw Uprising and its biographical consequences did produce such caesura, for a change. The few sentences expressed so far in this narration have been just a sketch, drawn with a very thick line but quite an essential one as it forms an important introduction to the autobiographical stories constructed as the narrator goes on. These introductory remarks tell us something important about the narrator’s childhood years. As he recollects it, this period takes place in the streets of Wola area, featuring interactions with his backyard mates. The passages from one stage to the other are smooth, there is nothing changed because of the war – apart, perhaps, from the fact that the forms of entertainment get somewhat severer, getting congested into a conspiratorial adventure. A group of mates aged fourteen to fifteen are forming “an organisation, well, an AK one”; some elderly man, a sergeant, comes up; the boys are getting trained in the activities preparing them for a rising. As the situation evolves, the friends split into two groups at some point – some are joining the AL and the others, the AK. The story on this whole situation is told in the way as if the choice of either option had been completely independent on them – it looks as if they are splitting into two backyard football teams by tossing a coin or counting down286, though it will be made clear a moment later than some of those boys had had their preferences defined. All this takes place shortly before the Uprising.
As the Uprising breaks out (or, to be more specific, just before that moment), the short prologue of this story ends. The narrative gets denser; concrete and expressive images are evoked:
Well, and the story is that the day of rising is coming, I’m taking part in day one of the rising with such a very nice colleague, he’s dead now, he was killed in the Warsaw Rising in the Old Town, Jurek Borkowski [was his name]. And, with this Jurek Borkowski… Aha, Jurek Borkowski says, ‘Roman (for my name’s Roman), Roman, I’m ←325 | 326→going with those lads of the AL, as they’ve got the arms, this or that, and the AK-men did not have all that at close hand.’ At that time, still before. Well, and I remained with those mates. …
Aha, that first day, that first day of August, I took part in the displacement of the ammunition, from Śródmieście [the downtown area] to Bema Street in Wola. And there, the situation was that you could even get killed there, in fact, as the gendarmerie were already fleeing, the barracks were already getting dismantled, and we were crossing that street, this is the street where presently there is that depot in Wola, I don’t know what its name is. And we were so extremely lucky, and we were going with that WO, he led us. And we had that ammunition, with this Jurek Borkowski. … And the father of this Jurek Borkowski was a tram driver. And it just happens that we’re going together with that father, and the father doesn’t know what it is that we’re carrying. He doesn’t know if Jurek is even in that… And, the coincidence was that we got off, he went further on, that father, well, and we had to carry that ammunition [to] there, in Bema St. Well, and we’re going back to Koło, for there was our muster point, so to put it. …
As we arrived in Bema St. with this ammunition, then they gave us the rifles, those English automates, the Sten guns, wrapped, there, in, sort of, envelopes emptied of cement. For us to carry those to Koło, to Obozowa Street, that in an old building, in ‘2’, if I’m not mistaken. And, we carried that there, with this Jurek man. And now please have a look, we’re carrying this, and at that time the lads had gone to their labour already, that is, to do the action. There, some dates were changed a bit, in any case, as we were back in the afternoon, on the first of august, those were not there anymore. And we only gave that arms back, those Stens. And the one who was receiving those Stens from us says, as we’re asking him, ’What’s going to happen with us?’ – ‘The action is done with today, but what’s next?’ – ‘About what’s next’, he says, ‘there’s nobody, all have gone, if we need you for a coming action…’ And it’s August the first. And after he made the, how to say it, statement, we returned to the place of our stay, which is to our block, to Obozowa Street. And so it happened. Later on, the Ukrainians came. … And we, whoever could, escaped to Boernerowo. There were the allotments, that’s the housing estate of those our men. And, what turns out of it? And there, the Ukrainians were everywhere, in Warsaw already, and already, you know… The rising was on then, wasn’t it? It already was the second, third, fourth [of August]… Well, and I don’t really know what date it was, but in any case, we got through to Boernerowo, together with my brother. To that housing estate, of these officers’ houses. … And there, in the meantime, SS troops, the communications, had appeared. And those communications troops are doing their job, well, but we’re hanging around there. There was something they apparently didn’t like, as all the young ones, separately, they wouldn’t any more ask if you lived in Boernerowo or not [in] Boernerowo, or you’re from Warsaw [unclear].
It is not easy to put these images in an order; it is even harder to refer them, in some way, to the course of the Uprising actions. Instead, let us only record what can easily escape our attention in the swift current of this recollection. Namely, the ←326 | 327→whole action of redeployment of ammunition was carried out together with a colleague who earlier on had gone “with those lads of the AL, as they’ve got the arms, this-that, and the AK-men did not have all that at close hand”. Also, let us not omit the fact that the action was not part of the Uprising – the Warsaw Uprising broke out a few hours later, while Roman Strój was back at his place, in one of those workers’ blocks-of-flats in Obozowa St. Once the Uprising was on, he had to get out of the trouble by fleeing from the Ukrainian troops supporting the Germans. My Interlocutor, together with his elder brother, chose the way, seemingly certain for them, leading to the recesses of the city they knew very well: to the garden plots and subdivision in the area of Boernerowo. This hasty choice of the escape direction appeared to be erroneous – they encountered German troops there.
I am taking a closer look at this episode not in order to expose the unreadiness, lack of coordination or irresponsibility of the commanders who resolved that a rising should break out (at the indicated moment). There is a lot of much more dramatic and, simultaneously, grotesque testimonies reinforcing such perception. There is also a lot of contrary reasons, supported by other testimonies. Both options endorse the views of either party to the unsolvable dispute about whether the incitement of the Warsaw Uprising was reasonable. Instead of joining either of the disputant groups, I prefer to focus on Roman Strój’s voice and the words he utters: my purpose is to get, through these words, together with Interviewee, a closer insight into his experiences from that time.
Seemingly, the shared element of these approaches is lostness, bewilderment, and relying on the others – no less confused and lost. There are the colleagues, asking “What’s next?”, and the commander knowing no answer but concluding the action for the day, as the dates have been altered, and therefore sending his subordinate fourteen/fifteen-year-olds back home. All this is happening moments before the ‘W’ Hour: fear, hiding, failed escape… This whole episode lacks a faintest trace of his own decision, or steps made by himself. Instead, proposed is a collective experience of chaos, obedience to orders inadequate to the situation, escaping the enemy – directly into their hands… The world around suddenly changes its prior meanings, and ceases being recognisable for the narrator. The streets of his town, with which he has been familiarising himself since his early childhood, are turning into traps. “What’s up” becomes uncertain: a trajectory experience enters the stage.
They caught us, and transported us to [the area of] Włochy near Warsaw, and from Włochy to Pruszków, to that camp, so to put it… That was the camp, in Pruszków, that was the trans-…. // What’s it called? From that camp, in Pruszków, they were dispatched to those various, to Auschwitz and to those [other] camps, and to the countryside too, to Polish villages. That varied. And, to Germany. As for myself, with that youth, so to put it, it is already recorded, in there, on August 13th we arrived in Auschwitz. There, we were for a rather short time, two weeks, I should think. In Auschwitz. And, from Auschwitz we were transported … to the central Mauthausen camp. And this date is noted down as well. And, what’s after? We’ve been for a longer time in the camp, as that has been, say, from August on. There you’ve got it, it’s ←327 | 328→there, some day August, you’d have to check up. We’re staying at the central camp of Mauthausen till November. At the quarantine unit, // in block sixteen, on quarantine. And, well, we’re busy with the camp labours, whatever the SS-men dictated for us to do then. That is, carrying stones from the quarries, and carrying them on [i.e. into] the central camp, inside. For there, it occurs that they were continually doing something. Those walls were they putting up, in various planes, and we were carrying those stones. I did not watch it minutely in what a, for what they were using those stones. In any case, the wall around Mauthausen was clad with these stones, it was of the height, roughly, three and a half, well, three metres for sure. And later on, this barbed wire with current. And we were carrying those stones. Whoever survived then, he’d lived to have what I had, that they selected those young ones and formed the so-called Arbeitskommando, and a Jungkommando of the young ones.
Like most of those who were not killed in the fighting (or manslaughters) during the Uprising but were caught by the Germans instead, Roman was taken, as a civilian, to the transit camp in Pruszków near Warsaw, and from that place, to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and, afterwards, Mauthausen. This fragment of the account tells us no details – whether with respect to the conditions in the Pruszków camp or with respect to the transport to the kacet, or regarding Auschwitz or Mauthausen as such. We can only hear mentions of the few main points of the way he then made – no zoom-ins, no images. The author/narrator sees himself as part of the collectivity – chased away, transported, kept at the camp, on the quarantine, etc. This recollection is completely deprived of an individual dimension of the experience – be it suffering or fear. The group of people he is part of forms no community: it is, instead, a mass of passive people, completely dependent on instructions and orders: “we arrived in …”, “we were transported”, “we’re busy with the camp labours, whatever the SS-men dictated for us to do then”, “we were carrying those stones”, “they … formed the so-called Arbeitskommando, and a Jungkommando of the young ones”. There is no breach made, no close-up on himself, or anyone else.
The reminiscence is non-historical, in that Roman sets it very vaguely in a broader context of historical knowledge.287 There is nothing special about the fact that the events have been remembered without precise dating (unless a date has a peculiar symbolic significance attached to it). Normally, however, autobiographies tend to absorb certain subjectively essential pieces of information interpolated from later-gained knowledge. This absorption is most often so precise that in analysing a narrative, one finds it impossible to discern within it the memory of experience its later complementation. For some former inmates of Nazi concentration ←328 | 329→camps, an important point of reference, when it comes to constructing an autobiography, is a document issued by the Arolsen-based International Tracing Service. Such a document contains, among other things, and to the extent such information is identifiable, the date of detention/arrest, specified time of stay at the camp (or, at each of the camps), subcamps, Kommandos, medical experiments to which the holder was subjected. Almost every former kacet inmate holds such a documents, the information therein contained belonging to their autobiography.
Yet, it happens sometimes, as in the case of Roman Strój, that such data remain outside of the autobiography, not getting integrated within the story. If evoked, references are simply made to the data contained in the document. As Roman talked to me, his Arolsen document lay on the table we were seated at. Hence, my Interlocutor points out to this certificate, believing this concrete piece of historical evidence might be of importance to me. He knows that the recording, once taken, will be inserted in the Mauthausen Memorial Site Archive, hence the references he is making: “it is already recorded, in there”; “And this date is noted down as well”; “There you’ve got it, it’s there, some day August, you’d have to check up”.
This rather careless attitude towards the dates in his own biography that could be believed important does not at all mean that the events attached to them are not quite important for this Interviewee. The reasons for this trivialisation are probably of a very different kind, identifiable as Mr Strój’s low narrative competence, and his lack of experience in constructing a biographical story. Of no less importance is Roman’s age at the time the events he describes took place. His very young, still tender, age contributes to the shaping of the way he experiences (and memorises) these trajectorial occurrences. A Kommando composed of very young inmates – the aforesaid Jungkommando – was peculiar not only owing to the low average age: the young people working in that team, some of them simply children, experienced and understood their surrounding camp reality differently than the inmates more advanced in years – and even more differently if compared to those ‘established’ in the camp. The clash with the camp was probably even more scaring for them. The roughness of this narrative may be a sign of the trauma which accompanied that event.
The incompetence of the newly arriving prisoners, their lack of skill to easily adapt, outright helplessness, their utter take-pot-luck attitude, was not only rooted in the bewilderment triggered by the crossing of the camp gate but also in the situation that in autumn 1944 prevailed in Nazi concentration camps – in Mauthausen and its subcamps in particular, as they were concealed in the depth of the Reich. This complex became the destination place for numerous transports going away (‘evacuated’) from the other camps situated closer to the frontlines moving towards them. Thousands of prisoners were flowing to Mauthausen from Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mittelbau-Dora, Groß-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Flossenbürg, and Sachsenhausen. This caused enormous chaos and overcrowding, even more deteriorated conditions (especially, want of food), and a radically diminished chance to survive. The outcome was a sudden increase in the death rates – with those newly coming dying the fastest. For the new transports, the Mauthausen ←329 | 330→camp was just a transit place on their way to one of the subcamps. After the first selection done on the spot, through the quarry labour, Roman Strój got employed ordinance factories in Vienna.
The reminiscence of the transport from Mauthausen is preceded by another image which got activated in his memory and triggered a digression:
And, interestingly, as I visited Mauthausen lately, with our excursion, // of our club, then I didn’t notice, // my colleague did. He says, ‘Roman, get back to the crematorium and look at there, there is a whole set of our colleagues who were assigned from Mauthausen to Vienna, for the Arbeitskommando.’
He probably refers to the plaque commemorating the prisoners sent to the subcamp, as part of that same transport, who did not live to see the liberation.
The narrator instantly resumes the main thread, telling us about his experience from September 1944 to April 1945:
To the Arbeitskommando at Schwechat, there was such one, and later I was moved to Schwechat and Mödling. But in the first stage, we were brought, the Germans brought us to… // it writes [i.e. ‘is written’, the form commonly used in uneducated colloquial Polish] there… // Wie-… Floridsdorf.288 But there, we only were, were for a night or two, as the fact was, there were bombings, this-that, of the Allies, and they sent us there, and later on, from that camp already, they directed us to Schwechat, it is an airport in Vienna, and there we were … .
And later on, those who were ailing already, and I just appeared as one such, then they sent us to the various so-called quarters. Am I right in what I’m saying? No, // right I am, a manor [Polish, rewir] was, like, a health centre, as they name it, the manor. What was that called?… Did I say it right?…. Well, I should think so. In any case, since in that camp in Schwechat … the conditions were like… // ’Cause it was a plane factory which was destroyed, in fact, to some, sort of, in ninety percent by the Allies. I don’t know if, there, the Americans, or the English, whatever. And there, the Germans endeavoured to teach us the craft. That is, the plumbers, as if, right? Well, but me, I just had a situation like, some sort of, so called phlegm, or phlegmon, or ←330 | 331→something of the sense, the lungs, correct? Well, and there, in that manor, was, like, an Ukrainian. And says the Ukrainian, I mean, the feldsher, he was not a doctor, he was a feldsher. And he says, in Russian, to me. ‘Kak sobaki sawa ne zyesh, to padokhnyosh, i tak, i tak’ [= ‘If you don’t eat a dog’s fat, die you will, whatever the case’]. Then says he, ‘Where’s it that you want to go?’ And I’m saying, well, I’d like to… // What is it that I could dispute now, yeah? ‘You’ve got the power.’ Then, he directed me [t] here, to Mödling289 itself, to this Mödling, the subcamp. The Arbeitskommando in Mödling. And it is in Vienna too.
I learned from the elder mates that there, in Mödling, … was an aircraft factory. … This was the mountains, rocky ones. // And the Germans, or Austrians, made, such, production halls, and there the planes were normally manufactured. … In any case, it was like this: the Arbeitskommando camp Schwechat and the Arbeitskommando camp Mödling. In Mödling, I was at the manor there. ‘Cause once that Ukrainian man found that I was bolnoi [‘sick’] there, well, then, ‘Go out of Schwechat!’, for, to do a work – not any more, just up there, to Mödling.
The whole narrative sequence quoted above is not essentially different from the preceding one: the content of the events and occurrences evoked is different, but the way the story is constructed proves quite similar. The central character/narrator is continually lost, entirely subject the pressure of external circumstances, with no room for an initiative of his own.290 This condition is not even transgressed by a reminiscence – the first such in his camp narrative – of an individual interaction with another inmate, a Ukrainian. The situation of that man was completely different: acting as a physician in a camp ‘manor’, he remains a prisoner all the same. And, he is willing to help. Meanwhile, the dialogue between him and the narrator which is (re)constructed here shows and reconfirms that the former’s situation was one of complete impotence, being at the mercy of fortune, or rather, at the decision, or mercy, of the others. Even where there is some vaguely appearing space for making a choice of his own, his lostness and fear prevent him from upsetting the belief expressed as “What is it that I could dispute now”, and, “You’ve got the power”. In these snatches of the conversation with the Ukrainian man, our ←331 | 332→attention is drawn by a characteristic sentence – quite importantly, formulated partly in Russian, the ‘feldsher’ utters at the sight of a sick, literally half-dead, young Pole. The camp doctor’s conviction that without being healed with canine fat (or suet – possibly, the only such fat somehow available at that time and place), Interlocutor had no chance to survive, is evoked not only for informative purposes. The quoted sentence embeds the Ukrainian feldsher in a strong stereotype291 of a tough and seasoned man of the East who can manage and get by in extreme circumstances. This stereotype is one of the filters at work here, operating between the experience being referred to and the moment he is talking to me (a little less than seventy years afterwards). What this filter does is admit into the memory only certain selected events, which are being attached a biographical meaning.
Quite like with the preceding fragments, Roman Strój is not completely certain about the historical details – the dates or names. His narrative remains crude, rough, and non-historical. Even the name of the camp pseudo-hospital – the ‘manor’, which otherwise usually forms part of an interiorised prisoner vocabulary, is uttered here only after a moment of hesitation, suspense:
Am I right in what I’m saying? No, // right I am, a manor was, like, a health centre, as they name it, the manor. What was that called?… Did I say it right?…. Well, I should think so.
These names, dates, and details remain distant. Like the planes bombing the arms factories. They were certainly flying through, throwing bombs and destroying various industrial plants in Vienna, but whether the planes were English (British) or American, he would not tell. These historic facts are of no importance to Interviewee: “I don’t know if, there, the Americans, or the English, whatever”.
This roughness of memory is alleviated, to some extent, by the knowledge gained from his elder colleagues. Not even knowledge, really: a curious detail – so it was for a young boy from Warsaw who was told that planes were being manufactured in the tunnels cut in the rock. The tone he uses when narrating it testifies that the fact has remained a curiosity, in a sense, till this day. More important than the piece of information in itself is the fact that there are colleagues appearing who are ready to share the news. This comes as a pale trace of the inmates’ brotherhood, be in on the level of elementary communication. And, it is a scratch on the image of a mass of lost prisoners unable to build any social relationships, even if fragmentary.
For young prisoners who were put into the Mauthausen system of camps in the last months of its functioning, the key occurrence was coming across an elder, ←332 | 333→more experienced and better domesticated within the camp – the meeting of a biographical caregiver.292 There could actually be more such protectors, at various moments and places, as the changes were occurring too often for such a bond to be sustained. The Ukrainian doctor, feldsher, was the first such biographical caregiver to Roman Strój. It went to his credit that my Interlocutor was moved from the armament factory in Schwechat to a ‘manor’ of a neighbouring subcamp. This is perhaps what he owes his survival to. That is to say, this may have been one of the reasons: there must have been more such events. Subsequently, when already at the Mödling subcamp’s manor:
And in Mödling, I was lucky enough, // well, a blessing in disguise, I think, // that I was the first, first person form Warsaw, from the Warsaw Uprising. And there were Poles too, there was, among others, a doctor, Krakowski was his name. I think I can remember his name, Krakowski, doctor Krakowski, who was the so-called arct [German, Arzt, i.e. physician]. An arct is the doctor for the whole camp. In spite of his being a prisoner, right? And he says, well, that he says, what, to me. Well, fir they were asking, how about the Warsaw there, what’s up, how ’bout the rising. Well, I told them all the story. And well, later, says he, ‘You’ve been ordered to go to Mauthausen, with that sickness of yours.’ And the trip to Mauthausen was normally concluded with death, because the misters like me were only made ready for the crematorium. Well, and so, there was a Gehenna, such that I was [i.e. started] crying there, laid myself at his feet, kissed his feet and so on, for him not to dispatch me to Mauthausen. And so, well, he left me there. He let me stay, and I was on [= at] the manor, on [= at] that camp outpatient clinic, a sort of assistant was I there. That is, I mean, I was sick a bit and stayed in that manor as a patient, but at the same time helped those Stubendiensts, am I right?
This time, help does not come as easily as the previous one. Now, it needs being obtained by entreaty, begged for. The Interviewee’s situation consequently changes: he no more remains completely passive, entirely dependent on the others. ←333 | 334→He becomes increasingly knowledgeable of the peculiar camp situation, knowing from somewhere (probably, from the other inmates) that given his health, being dispatched to the central camp of Mauthausen equals a death sentence.
The reminiscence of his despair and humiliation brought about by that desperate combat for his life is one of the most dramatic images in Roman’s entire account. It is not just that what he recalls is dramatic – psychologically tough in terms of telling a story about, as it enforces the unveiling, or debilitation, of the narrator’s certain defence mechanisms. Dramatic was also the very situation to which this reminiscence is related: lostness and isolation, plus recognition of his own situation. A fifteen-year-old boy, the only one from the Warsaw transport who ended up in that Vienna subcamp remains helpless and at the mercy of the others. His judgement is insufficient, and he has no acquaintances in the camp, and thus is incapable of activating social capitals (within the inmate community) to increase the chance to survive, but his will to live is extremely strong. By the time he has subdued threat to the extent enabling him to comprehend that he might lose his life so easily in a moment, he reaches for the only weapon available to him in this situation: he attempts to arouse pity, to refer to another inmate’s sensitivity. He quite clearly believes that this other man still has some human sentiments, not completely trampled in him by the camp reality. And he is not let down: he is allowed to stay in the hospital for longer and work as an assistant. This entreated assistance will save his life again, but this stage, again, would not last long. The attempts at getting successfully hidden in a safe place, better labour, some function, all fail. Even though some elder inmates relent a little and he manages to wait out somewhere, this state would not last long. The last months in the camp prove very hard; things are changing extremely fast – fast indeed for the newly arriving prisoners, as they are sent to the subcamps and working Kommandos that are just being created, some being closed a few months later, others moved somewhere else. Everything is in constant motion, but these short-lived subcamps are devised not only for having the prisoners isolated and emaciated through labour. In this last phase of their existence, in almost each of these numerous subcamps, the armaments production was in full blow; at that particular place, aircrafts were assembled, in the first place. Thus, the camp prisoners’ labour was seriously made part of a design that was completely crazy and obsessive at that time: the will to redirect the course of events, and make victory in this war still possible.
Roman Strój has to rejoin a regular working Kommando. Being a youngster, he would not go to the factory, but instead, to an unspecialised order-keeping team, doing a variety of auxiliary jobs.
And that lasted for some time, until their potential was finally exhausted, and so was mine, and they directed me with this to the Arbeitskommando. … I had quite a number of Germans with me [in the Kommando – PF’s note]. This Franz, he was a kapo…, Lagerbau – no, hang on: Lagerbau was a higher big-shot. But he was a kapo for this Arbeitskommando business. The Arbeitskommando, that was him, this Franz was exactly the kapo who was responsible for the labour in its entirety. Then, we, like, ←334 | 335→we wouldn’t enter there, into that plane factory. We worked as an attendance crew for that Arbeitskommando, that is, the enclosed place. We were doing everything we were commanded to do. I mean, either some were painting the barracks there, the others peeling potatoes, others still carrying some pots, of some sort, and others still, let’s say, were digging some pits there, and pelted cinder into there. In any case, that Arbeitskommando there… was tasked to do all the clearouts inside the camp. Or, the subcamp, for the main camp was Mauthausen, and that was a subcamp.
The sentence “We were doing everything we were commanded to do” is at the centre of this reminiscence. Again, this statement unveils to us a piece of the truth about that experience. Not the truth and experience about/of the camp in general, but the truth and experience of my Interlocutor. The whole reminiscence of that labour is reduced to the instructions being executed on a collective basis.
The subsequent stage of collective experience was the aircraft assembling work at the armaments factory. The fact that the narrator has appeared there is shown as an occurrence in no way dependent on him: he ends up in a mining tunnel, as he was ‘directed’ there. This was Roman’s last camp job, and he performed it until the very last moments of this Viennese subcamp factory. The reminiscence of the work as such is intertwined in Interviewee’s memory with the final moment of the camp’s liquidation. Should we wish to analyse the facts about the factory’s operation and its subsequent liquidation, we ought to get these two reminiscences untangled. However, trailing the very memory, we can quote a longer narrative passage:
And, we walked down along those adits. Because later on, as this work was ended, … then I was sent to do a work with those planes. And again, I walked up or down the stairs, there were, like, the stairs, you walked around there. And there was the whole world already, and a half of America. That is, the Russians, and the French, and the Germans, and the Poles, and this-that. Well, and it was just there that German supervision was, … the German civilian supervision. Apart from these, that the SS were there and so on, there were Germans and professionals in those aircraft matters. And they were setting the direction for us: what, // where I am supposed to do, to stand. And he gave me such a, for instance, hammer, a pneumatic hammer. I stood at the outer side of the fuselage, we’re mounting, and there, some Russian stood on that [other] side, and the rivet, a rivet is a rivet, //we were clinching, no, it was him that was holding that top, and I, there, with my, buzzzzzz. And, such a thing.
This lasted rather short, … because the Russians were already marching toward Vienna, and the Americans were marching toward Vienna. So… Well, yes: on April the thirtieth, they were already in Vienna. This was so, this is what seems to me. … Well, that work was such as I’m saying. And, at some moment, we’re watching, arriving at work in the morning, and those ones there, the German miners [i.e. mine-layers], are setting the fuses, and the plastic already, that TNT to get all that blown out. In spite of us doing all that all the time. [laughs] … Just like that. And those ones, you can see, just as it is, those charges, him screwing that blasting cap in. You could see all that, before the very eyes they were doing it. Well, it was so, really. But the thing was that ←335 | 336→we still went [i.e. managed to go] out, and the explosion followed after our exit. They had cleansed everything, and all those tunnels, all the stores there, whatever was there under the ground. ’Cause the Russians were on their way. And they wanted to get it hidden from the Russians, to destroy it, so that the Russians wouldn’t catch it. ’Cause that is, after all, a… That’s what it seems, this was all in the documentation. All that. Those planes, whole ones, that’s just [i.e. were fit] for flying. …
I’m not saying here what the conditions of working were there, and in that Arbeitskommando. For those civilians, they were various, too. Some, they’d support us, some sort of little hunks he would give, in secret, of bread, or something. And some were not taken into account, same as the…, and… Because, either he was afraid of that German, SS-man, or didn’t want to have conflicts, of one sort or another, for maybe he was bound to the work. They knew already the end was coming, that the Krieg kaput already. But they didn’t want, couldn’t demonstrate it. // Civilians, I’s talking about those civilians. // They couldn’t display that so much, ’cause… Well, they preferred to stay aside, not getting involved in these matters. ‘The SS is in charge of this, the camp’s in charge, and we’ve got here just such, like, casual activities.’ // And well, once that whole entertainment with this work on those planes was over, on the first, I should think, the first… April the thirtieth, or thirty… first, just a second, a moment… May, that was May the fifth, but we probably walked eight days to there. That, in any case, before April the thirtieth.
The arms factory is astonishing not only because it is hidden in a mining tunnel. The narrator is also astonished at the variety of the prisoners and civilians working there, or rather, a single aspect of the venue: the nationalities. This diversity is not making the narrator enthusiastic (as is easy to judge by his voice): it emphasises and reinforces his ‘lost’ status. This is yet another new situation, one more difficulty he has to deal with. Roman will do so the way he can do it – by keeping a distance toward non-Polish inmates and focusing on the work he is doing. Hence, the colleague he works directly with, while riveting some fuselage elements, remains a nameless Russian [the Polish has Rusek here, a colloquial and rather coarse form. (Transl. note)]; instead of zooming on that man, we are learning about some technicalities of the labour being performed, including attempted imitation of its accompanying sounds.
The work at the plane factory called for engineer’s knowledge and engineer supervision, hence the appearances of Austrian and German experts to supervise the inmates. Their presence was not merely technology-oriented. The very fact that they came in the camp interactions – with the inmates, or the SS-men – somehow modified these interactions, especially at the points they transgressed their entrusted roles as technology experts and overseers. Roman is constructing a real image of technological supervision but also attempts, using no specific examples this time, to somehow generalise their attitudes.293 Such generalisation is ←336 | 337→not easy, as the memory evokes different examples. Some ‘experts’ tried to assist in a low: “some sort of little hunks he would give, in secret, of bread, or something”; others “were not taken into account, same as the…” (probably, as the SS-men). On the whole, they are perceived by Interviewee as standing aside, not-quite-resolute, afraid of getting involved in helping (“hey didn’t want, couldn’t demonstrate it”), for they reported to the in-camp SS authority. And, they were scared with the approaching end of the war. Worried about their own hides, they are waiting for the Russians to arrive imminently: the Russian army was liberating the territory – for the prisoners, not quite for the civilians. Roman Strój is a keen observer. A short moment of relative stabilisation offered by the factory labour, after several months of incessant urging chasing away from one camp to another, reinstates visual acuity.
The reprieve during the ‘entertainment with the work on the planes’ did not last long, though we cannot tell exactly how long. Based on the account, what we know is that this moment heralds a dramatic conclusion of Roman’s camp career. An image remains from those last moments, which aroused affright among the inmates: planting explosive charges in the factory which was still in operation. This image is primarily built of his own (and collective) experiences, and only to a ←337 | 338→small degree, of the historical knowledge – although the latter is present too when it comes to mentioning the Russians moving in and the documents the Germans or Austrians endeavoured to destroy before the Russians could enter. This knowledge sticks in the memory alongside his own experiences, but the two areas are not very well composed reciprocally. This narrator lacks practice in constructing biographical narrative about those experiences, which is apparent (even more so in the audio layer); this deficit is also visible, once again, in the way he introduces the dates.
My Interviewee can remember (and knows it, at the same time) that the way he made from the subcamp to Mauthausen took eight days. Yet, he is getting lost as he tries to determine the initial and the final date of the march. He tries to refer it to the date the central camp was liberated, as firmly set in the former Mauthausen inmates’ memory – the fifth of May.294 However, this reference does not change much. He is getting increasingly lost amidst the dates, and so he tries to refer to a more reliable source: the Arolsen certificate, lying on the table all the time. I then try to more actively participate in the conversation, to somehow help him specify, the moment I can grasp it matters for my Interviewee:
[PF:] It says here, eight of April, I think?
[RS:] Eighth of April, where?
[PF:] Eighth of April, to Mauthausen.
And the tip works: the story, slightly supported, goes on freely295 and will now lead us through Roman Strój’s key camp-related experience. Not his personal experience – the one shared by a very large group of prisoners who in autumn 1944 got from Warsaw to Mauthausen, and were thereafter sent to one of the numerous, relatively small, factory subcamps.296 This experience has been named ‘the death march’:←338 | 339→
Well, the eighth of May, well, let’s go for it. That is, on the eighth of April, we left Mauthausen, the… We left Schwechat, Mödling, and all those… ’Cause, as the fellows were later winding up in those subcamps of Vienna, then all those Arbeitskommandos were getting merged into a single cluster. What I mean is this. From Schwechat, the one I was [in] at the beginning, they went to Mödling. From Mödling did we go to that Floridsdorf, and, on the way, … they merged together or broke up. For they, the Germans, did such a thing that they did not want to push that forward in large groupings. That is, each grouping had a determined amount [number] of prisoners. Let us say, three hundred or five hundred, I don’t know. But, whatever the case, we were joined together. Mödling was joined with Schwechat, and formed one group. And this was like, on the one side and on the other side the SS-men were walking, or, later on, there were less and less SS-men. I don’t know the reason, perhaps they were fleeing… And, to our Stubendiensts, and to those, well… operating under the direction of the Germans, they put on them the German uniforms without, without the…, without the distinctions, the rifles, and they guarded us. But it was like this then, the second half of the march, on the arrival to Mauthausen. Yet… I mean, that is, based on what I noticed, then, who could have been such a soldier without any authorisation. Who was, for instance, some night-watcher in the Lager, who was some functional man, kapo, and behaved well, … the SS-men had a good opinion about him. This was the sort that they’d dress in German uniforms and give them rifles. I don’t know if those rifles were loaded or not; there were rifles, in any case. And they, with those rifles, just like that, a German walked, one of them, here, let’s say; then, a Pole, we’re assuming, the second one; that Stubendienst, some sort of, the third – a Ukrainian, or Russian, and then again, a German, and again, something of a sort. So, they kept guard on one another, kept guard on those, so, if this be the case, they wouldn’t get some prank… And so did we arrive at the central camp of Mauthausen, out of which we had departed.
My Interviewee’s attempts at setting his narrative in the context of dates is problematic for him. He requests me to help him out, as he feels it is an obstacle for him to continue building his story; so, he suspends it, asking me for assistance – once I have shown my readiness to let myself speak, for the same cause:
[RS:] And that was, just, as you’ve read it out here, on the eighth, right? The eighth of April. That was from Mauthausen, yes? The march-out from Mauthausen, right?
[PF:] Not really: to Mauthausen, on the eighth.
[RS:] That is, the departure from Vienna…
[PF:] The arrival in Mauthausen.
We have determined once again (and, not for the last time during this meeting) that the date, 8th April, as officially recorded, refers to the arrival in Mauthausen. That day marked the finish of the eight-day way from the subcamp located near Vienna. Once the accuracy of the facts has been established, the narrator once again dives, much deeper this time, into the story of his ‘death march’. The memory activates now newer and newer recollections of the way he was making, which ←339 | 340→prevents Roman from getting the story closer to the route’s destination. Once he has reached it, he resumes in the subsequent sentences some of the earlier, now animated, images. His narrative, rather terse and concise so far, is now spilling quite extensively:
’Cause we were walking on foot all the time. As they say, in those columns, right? And we stood, just like that, outdoors. It was like, when you walked on those Austrian hills, mountains, in fact, it was snowing, regularly, or the area was covered with snow, and we, each had one blanket on him or her. Meaning, wrapped in the blanket. And that blanket was wet, it’s quite clear, isn’t it, that it couldn’t be dry, no way, you know, being like that. Then, we’d take such a thing, that we, by the brook, or wherever, on the grass, where it was relatively dry… Dry – this notion did not exist at all, but that’s what we were naming it. And, a mate would lay one blanket, I… ’Cause there were four [of us], for instance, in these blankets. And then, you’d cuddle [one another], well, so it was. And the Germans, … when they made [i.e. ordered], like, a rest for the night, then they … would place these machine guns on the nipples and, well, they held us at gunpoint throughout. And, they many a time threw [shafts of] light with the spotlights. … But getaways happened all the same, there were getaways, some sort of. …
Aha, let me, perhaps, resume that march, as we were driven from this Vienna. From Vienna to Mauthausen. Then, there were various scenes occurring. Because the SS-men behaved in different ways. The point is, they oftentimes had situations, like, that they’ve tanked up, and then, well, … vented anger on us. Humoristic, every S[S] - man wanted to show off before the others, what he’s up to. Well, then, when there were those hills, they had us chased across those mountains. There, the fellows were rushing forth, and never standing up again. Well, that’s rather plain and simple. Later on, what followed… There were things, like, that people couldn’t stand it, whether physically, or psychically, and asked the SS-men to be killed. Me, with my own eyes, with a mater, such an elderly man, a Pole, we were leading him, arm-in-arm, and it occurred that he couldn’t [make it] any more at all. An interesting thing being that the organism surrenders in the mountains, and is completely broken yet, thoroughly. You cannot even stand up, that is, cannot even stay upright, but is merely falling down. And, well, that elderly man says to us, ‘Go rescue yourselves, lads, because I cannot go up that mountain, whatever the case.’ And, at the foot of those hills, it usually was like this. You’d go up that hill, and was powerless yet. And it’s like shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, and those ausliders [? outsiders] that were withdrawn by the SS-men, and so-called Todkommando [‘death Kommando’ (PF’s note)] went on, and they killed those people. They listed the numbers – the German accuracy! They listed the numbers – everyone had his or her number on the plate. They took the numbers down, and this Kommando was burying those people as they went no. So, I could see [it] in that march, every day.
And, the people couldn’t stand all that any more, and wanted to be killed. How was that being carried out? Like, groups of people. For example, we are going, turning there, going on somewhere, and there’s a clearing, right? The clearing’s on the right, and we’re doing that wavy line, going along the roadway. Yeeah, yeeah, yeeah… It’s ←340 | 341→to that clearing that the people were rushing, on purpose, like, you know, last-ditch effort. They rushed to that clearing so the Germans shoot them dead. And this was coming about. We’re looking, the shots: bah-bah-bah-bah, bah-bah-bah-bah, bah-bah-bah-bah… They’re already lying down. And, an interesting thing, all those that I saw, three maybe, or five, crosswise. Everyone, the sign of cross [sic]. I don’t know what that, was it… For, as he ran, perhaps he rolled over and thus… But, in any case, that has stuck in my memory. Why, that this cross?… Everywhere, everybody whoever fell down there, did it crosswise.
Well, so it was. That’s how you marched on to this Mauthausen. And, you’d go these eight days, indeed, from Vienna. There, well, various situations there were on the way, especially in the night. Because…
Aha, and the troops withdrawing from the front. It was between these SS-men who were leading us and the Germans who were going on [= by] the tanks, or armoured cars, various, like, dissensions were produced. ‘What’re you doing, in here? Leading the people? Go off to the front!’ Also, there, among those Germans, quarrels occurred, and they even resorted to small arms. For those ones were not afraid of these, and these, in turn, believed that it is quite an awful thing that we’re [= they are] fighting at the warfront and the gentlemen here are leading their Negros. So, that, also such various scenes were taking place. Well, but, in any case, those SS-men who were leading were autocratic, and we were subjected to their will. Or, if they wanted it, we were still alive, and if they didn’t want it, then we were dead. Whoever has succeeded, he… In any case, I shouldn’t like to hazard a guess, how many there were of those who got killed on their way, but a half for certain, I daresay. Which means, if there were, say, a few thousand going, then half of those thousands ended up buried. On their way. For, it was the eight days, after all. And, the first days were such that we had nothing for the first three days. No bread, no of the… Nothing, completely nothing. Only later on, there surfaced, some, the sort of… So, the people were exhausted, ravenous, so much up those hills… If that terrain was passably flat, then some more would’ve survived, still. But, well, as regards myself, then, a kapo, an Ukrainian, I should think, when we’ve reached Mauthausen, then he saw me and says, ‘And, you’ve survived?’ He was astonished. In Russian, like that, but I say [i.e. replied him] in Polish. Says he, ‘And you too? I thought you’re gone already.’ And, so it was, there were miracles like these. And that’s what mostly was, there were such incidents. That, some…
Aha, still, a moment like this. The Russians who were there with us together, I mean, the Häftlings too, also the camp’s inmates, then, as they were watching us getting perished, for the Poles were, after all, psychically weaker than those other nations; particularly, from the Russkis [colloq., Russians] – then, the Russkis said, ‘Yob tvoiu mat’, shto thci polyatchki… pogib, pogib, pogib.’ [= Fuck your mother, what, those Poles… Fallen, fallen fallen.] And they kept wondering why the Poles are perishing so quickly. And, they’re exposing themselves to the bullets. Are not willing to live. And they, as long as he [= they; Mr R.S. generally tends to use colloquialisms, grammatical and other. (Transl. note)] could, one would scuffle. That was beyond dispute. So, the Russians could have been impressive with their, a sort of… The tough climate, and they had a real-life example to follow, for they had not been there overly nursed, we ←341 | 342→know it well what it was like, yeah? So, those SS-men’s trolleys, were pushed, drawn, by the Russkis, largely. There, some S[S] -man, if he was, say, a good man, would give some whack to somebody. A good piece of a slice of bread, or something of the sense. In any case, they were those draught horses. And were drawing those carts. ’Cause an S[S]-man wouldn’t draw the cart, would he. And there they had various things of theirs. And, well, the… Well, anything else we might be curious about?…
A mere eighty days – and this jagged storyline covering those events so much place in this autobiography. This cannot be otherwise, since Roman Strój’s memory has preserved these images as his key biographical experience: unparalleled, irreducible to any other experience, non-generalizable, shattering the narrative.
The previous, hardened, downright monotonous rhythm of labouring at the camp factory is cancelled all of a sudden – and replaced by a different rhythm: the one of daily marching, where only the steps are monotonous. Everything else around is subject to incessant and baffling change. Although the whole way he has made, up to the conversation with a Russian when already at the destination, in Mauthausen, is shown in this narrative as a collective experience, my Interviewee never ceases to carefully scout around and observes the occurring events on various, as if parallel, stages. This is his eighth month in the camp: long enough for the survival instinct to made the senses as keen as possible. His increased vigilance and careful observation helped him make the toughest of all the ways he had made in his lifetime. The tension of yore has left in him the trace in the form of memory and a story, so dense, on his participation in the death march. Like the whole account, the story is constructed as a collective, or group, experience. Roman Strój remains one of the many, in the driven mass of anonymous prisoners.
The image of the death march emerging out of this reminiscence has not much to do with the walking as such – certainly, not with marching as a troop formation, although the prisoners were supposed to be marching in columns. This was a horrible roaming across the mountains and hills, in the snow, rain, and mud: ‘shuffle-shuffle’. The nights spent on the grass, by the brook, under the open sky; exhaustion; hunger; the prisoners wrapped in wet blankets; the elderly forced to rely on the younger ones, on their last leg themselves; the prisoners begging the SS-men for mercy and for putting them out of their misery with a death shoot – the shoots are heard from time to time; some prisoners acting as supervisors, but their rifles might be empty; the others – the toughest – drawing the carts with the SS-men’s possessions; the SS-men – drunk, entertaining themselves with driving the prisoners and subsequently knocking those who have fallen and cannot get up by themselves; digging the graves for those tormented to death or executed by firing squads; encounters with frontline Wehrmacht soldiers who cannot quite understand what they are seeing; and, in a different perspective: an SS-man treating his porter with bread!
There is no single adequate name Roman feels he could use to grasp all these images under. It is not only about him: perhaps such a name is simply inexistent. He later says, “all that, this Gehenna”, thus attempting at grasping and consolidate ←342 | 343→that experience. There are many more attempts made at harnessing the events he has lived through; these attempts accompany the strictly narrative fragments, as their interpretations and comments expressed as the story goes on.
He attempts to somehow rationalise the dying of the other prisoners marching together with this Interviewee along that terrible road to Mauthausen. The task is not easy, given that probably only half of the group reached their destination. A logical explanation is resorted to, though: the human “organism surrenders in the mountains, and is completely broken yet, thoroughly. You cannot even stand up, that is, cannot even stay upright, but is merely falling down”. Thus, the deaths of those people remains the domain of the laws of nature: the organism simply surrenders, and falls down. And, there is nothing that can be done about these laws: a human, certainly not the one shuffling along beside the narrator, cannot be held responsible for those ones who have dropped out, fallen down. Nature is ruthless and unforgiving, which is particularly true about the mountain nature: “If that terrain was passably flat, then some more would’ve survived, still”. My Interviewee somehow succeeds to explain the reasons behind certain deceases by referring to those biological-and-physical premises.
The other reason for the deaths is quite human, in turn: the ill will of the SS-men. Whenever this driver came to the fore, the victim had no chance to survive. The malevolence acted much in the way the laws of nature did – ruthlessly and irrevocably: “… those SS-men who were leading were autocratic, and we were subjected to their will. Or, if they wanted it, we were still alive, and if they didn’t want it, then we were dead”. There is not even a smallest room for anyone else’s own will. There is, instead, an absolute determinism, holding in its embrace the emaciated, hungry, and completely helpless prisoners.
The recognition of such cause and effect relationships is unsatisfactory, in itself. Roman looks for a meaning behind the deaths of his anonymous companions of that march – his fellow prisoners who fell or got killed on their way. This meaning is much more difficult for the narrator to identify. He finds a clue but is not certain whether it is the appropriate one. The clue – the one that ‘has stuck in his memory’ – is that “everywhere, everybody whoever fell down there, did it crosswise”. Where does such an image come from? Is it that the dead corpses got indeed arranged in such a way on the grass, by the road? Or, were they so arranged by someone (by whom?)? Or maybe, it is the memory that has arranged them in such a manner, in search for a meaning in the image that needed being added sense to, in order to be assimilated. Those crosses must have meant something. What, namely? “Why, that this cross?…” The answer is unknown, although there are some answers arising. We can only make guess about them, as the narrator would not dare trace the thread down. It is mostly an instance of lack of resoluteness before himself, in unfolding his own suppositions, rather than revealing them in front of me. He just cracks a smile, perplexedly, as if he were not fully confident in himself.
It is not only death that has its metaphysics in this fragment of the story. Salvage, attainment of the destination when still alive, also has one. Roman mentions miracles and incidents in a single breath: “there were miracles like these ←343 | 344→… there were such incidents”. The status of both is similar here: they are tremendous powers, unusual forces. It is owing to their operation, extremely selective as it was, that my Interviewee has survived this way, finished the death march on his own feet.
The metaphysics of rescue and the metaphysics of death have a lot in common in this case. They belong to the same order of things, beyond human reach. With this interpretation, the deaths of the other prisoners as well as his own survival are decided somewhere far away – somewhere outside. It is hard to guess, though, whether they are decided by themselves or there is someone to resolve. Both options are possible, in fact: searching the sense, or meaning, does not have to be subject to binary logic.
Logical, in a colloquial sense – that is, coherent and consistent with the earlier ideas (those occurring before the autobiographical narrative, but not necessarily those preceding the autobiographical experiences) – is inserting the SS-men’s and the Rusek’s (Russian man’s) behaviours within the stereotypical framework. The SS-men, taking down the prisoner numbers of the fallen (i.e. those killed by the march or in the march), fulfil the German accuracy. It is not important that a more extensive description of this march could have confirmed a contrary stereotype, should such one have functioned. In turn, those tough Russians: well, that’s quite plain… My Interviewee has assumed, after all, that we, the Poles (including the two of us) know well how hard the life is there, in Russia; how inured the Russians had been in their own country, before they ended up in the camp: “they had a real-life example to follow, for they had not been there overly nursed, we know it well what it was like, yeah?”. It does not matter that in case some other measurements were applied for the pace of dying, as mentioned by the narrator (‘other’ is not to imply reliable), it would appear that the Russians were perishing in Mauthausen equally fast, all the more that they were treated no less cruelly. Not just in Mauthausen: in concentration camps, on the whole.297←344 | 345→
Death march is a traumatic experience, which is not easily containable in a narrative. My Interviewee’s biographical memory has cleaved this experience up into a course, if not a loose set, of independent episodes – each of which forms a separate scene. The narrator casts himself as a spectator. Thus, he keeps a distance to the dramatic and tragic events taking place. He would not endeavour to put them together into a single spectacle; he might have not manage to cope with a story like that. However, he remains aware that he is building his story using fragments of those experiences that his memory has let him set in motion. There are many. How many were unwanted by the memory, or unevocable, we cannot tell. The suspending question: “Anything else we might be curious about?…”, concluding this reminiscence, offers us merely a guideline that certain experiences have remained concealed.
The trajectory of the death march does not close off the camp pathway. The march marked an evacuation, on foot, from the subcamp that had coincidentally been brought closer to the frontline, into one that is concealed further off, and is thus safer. Hence, the arrival at Mauthausen opens another stage of Roman Strój’s camp experience – the next, and, this time, last, phase of his inmate career:
[RS:] Well, and? We arrived in that, on the eighth of April, to Mauthausen, and again: the mikvah, we rolled up the hill, because, you know, Mauthausen is on top. Then, as we walked there, from this Vienna, relatively, along the lowlands, but, like, the hills, yeah? And, finally, to Mauthausen are were going, to the central camp. And well, there, we were welcomed there with the mikvah. A cold water, like, a cool one, but in fact, the water was cold. And they said later on that it was their plan to have us gassed. But based on what the facts say, there was no gas there – it’s just water that was there. And, most fortunately so. But so, they told us to strip naked, it was March, all the time.
[RS:] Ah yes, in April, that… But when we arrived in Mauthausen, it was the eighth, yes? The eighth of April. Right. That is, on the eighth of April, they told us to strip naked, and, to that mikvah. Under that cold water. We were thinking that we could somehow blow away, pretend that you’re washing yourself, but avoid getting under that water, the cold water. But well, unfortunately not, that was impossible, as the kapos were walking with, such, whips ’round the fringes, and, well, ‘Waschen, waschen, waschen!’ there was. And, no wizardry ’bout it. Not going in? Wham!
And, well, later, like, shrunken, soaked, we’re rushing for the barrack. And, the barrack, was like this. The first quarantine: 16, 17, 18, 20. Then came block 24, second quarantine. And everybody wanted to enter that block. I mean, a barrack it was, ’cause they dispensed there… there was some meal [served] yet. Meal did I say: some black coffee, and something to follow up. Well, and some rags, eh? That striped clothing. But, now, let bygones be bygones. In any case, they were crowding in there. Well, and, somehow, whoever could bear, whoever could stand all that, this Gehenna, then he’d reach the target, and survive. I am here because ←345 | 346→I survived, after all. But not everybody succeeded, because… for various reasons. Well, let’s say it to ourselves, endurance-related, or… He’d have the strength to…
This whole description of the rearrival in Mauthausen was evoked earlier on, between the death march images. Those images could not be held back; similarly, it is not easy to conclude the account on the last weeks at the camp. These areas are interpenetrative. Both reminiscences are revolving around the meaningful date, which is continually evoked: the eighth of April: revolving, alternately, on its both sides.
We returned on April the eighth, yes, April the eighth, to Mauthausen, then, well, it began, the normal way, on [= at] this block 24. I was [there], and my mates who had returned together with me. A regular camp life began. Based on what I can remember, only those morning and evening exercises has stuck in me [i.e. in my memory], which also mowed down the people ‘just fine’. ’Cause that was [jumping] firecracker, whatever else, jumping, this, that. And we, for it already was, like… Eighth of April, and on the fifth, the liberation followed yet. That is, practically, some labours were still being performed there, but, camp-like ones, if any. That is, arrangement works. Whoever was still strong enough, for there were such ones, already, that… Because, for instance, every morning, out of our block, well, should I know, to tell the truth, ten, fifteen of them were going to the crematorium yet. And, in front of the crematorium building, as you went out of our quarantine, then you could see… Then you could see a whole, like, three-, well, just to be frank, three-storey… Three storeys, is quite a thing. Well, a pile, like, of human skeletons. That was accruing, like this. And the crematorium couldn’t keep pace to combust all that. They had no idea then of how to get the matter off their hands. Meaning, they had the intention for this not to be visible…
Were it not absolutely certain that these fragments of the present account refer to the experiences of April and early May 1945, the last moments before the liberation, one might think some mistake, or a technical error, has occurred with the result that a piece of audio file has skipped over to an improper place. This scene mainly opens the associations with the arrival in the camp of a new transport of prisoners, a new Zugang, rather than the atmosphere of the last days before the liberation, as known from the other accounts. In the freeform narrative of my Interviewee, this entry into the camp appears described in more detail than the first one; but there is no mistake, or defect, about it. Roman Strój’s camp experience turned full circle. With the nine months spent in the kacet, he again sees himself as a confused newcomer – a Zugang indeed. He had never quit this role for good; certainly, he had never forgotten it. Contrary to those who survived for a number of years in such camps, activation of more efficient adaptation strategies did not fall to his lot. Well, he must have activated some – otherwise, he would not have survived; these strategies were mostly passive, withdrawal being predominant.298 The more active strategies were only accessible to senior prisoners.←346 | 347→
The bath, disinfection, allocation of striped clothing, cleaning works, morning and evening exercises that “moved down … just fine”, traditional camp alimentation: “black coffee, and something to follow up” was all part of the standard ‘quarantine’ procedure. Even the reminiscence of fear of being gassed proves characteristic to many former inmates’ narratives about this experience. The failed attempt at avoiding cold bath, tamed by the screaming kapos with their whips, herding the prisoners into the showers, only reaffirms the prisoners’ conviction that there can be no deviation from the procedure. The procedure must be carried out.
There are, too, certain subtle differences in the narrative about the second quarantine, before the liberation. There are traces of the extremely intensive few months of condensed camp experience. Roman is reporting on the occurrences in a quiet fashion, without much emotion. The procedure he was put through again no more has its former initiation power – it would not shock or terrify to a like extent. And, it cannot act in its primary psychological role: it cannot activate the deprivation processes. Thrown into the gears of this machinery, the prisoners are no more new to it: they have nothing to be stripped of yet. Save for their lives. They are now Häftlings, and the deprivation process is behind them. They have been through it already, subjected to this specific processing, or treatment. Everything they are experiencing at the moment is merely the standard camp procedure, everyday life, routine: “then, well, it began, the normal way, on this block 24. I was [there], and my mates who had returned together with me. A regular camp life began”. This ‘regularity’ has a reverse facet as well: surrender, detachment, indifference. The camp language has coined a jargon description of such a mental (and physical) state: growing Muselmann – complete expiration of the inmate’s force to fight for his or her life.
Although Roman does not refer to this name, he knows the condition quite well – which is testified by the image quoted above. His experiences from the last days before the liberation are unfolding amidst the heaps of human corpses, piles of carcasses. Although it seeks refuge from those images, keeping them at a cool distance (“They had no idea then of how to get the matter off their hands”), his memory has preserved the experience of that dangerous closeness. My Interviewee knows is aware (and, probably, feels it) that he has almost missed our talk, together with his whole post-camp life: “I am here because I survived, after all. But not everybody succeeded …”. In those last months, the camp was devouring the highest numbers of victims.299
In terms of what the last days spent in the camp were like for Roman Strój, the image of the liberation his memory has preserved is very telling. It is very much ←347 | 348→different from the kind of image the former inmates tend to evoke in their written reminiscences and oral accounts (including the contributions to our documentary project).
But there was a moment when the Americans, I mean, the Poles300, rode into Mauthausen the first, on those armoured cars. But, as they say, when they caught sight of that pile, as the main gate of Mauthausen goes, and as you look, just, straight ahead, then it’s just that the pile of those skeletons was there, straight ahead. That was around, just to be exact, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, well, four hundred metres. Maximum. As they say, when they saw that pile of those skeletons, then they curled a U-turn, with those cars, and, whizz! – down the hill they drove. They didn’t even want to drive in, and look at that. And so, an American group of the Red Cross went along only later. ’Cause there were the cars, and they had, like, the signs, right? It was only them that started taking, like, a closer interest in all that, and segregating all that. ‘You go in here, you go in here, the Muselmanns.’ The Muselmanns are such that, by the skin of their teeth, well, the living dead. Not dead as yet, but he could be so in an hour. Then, in any case, those American Red-Cross soldiers, [took] some care…
Instead of a strongly fixed image featuring a U.S. Army tank crossing the camp gate and setting the prisoners free, Roman has not ceased to see around himself the piles of human carcasses, or skeletons, in the first place. There is almost nothing we can learn about what happened about him at that moment. Well, not quite nothing: he must have been in one of those groups being ‘segregated’. He was probably too weak to enter any activity, to embark on anything on his own, as many of his camp mates did. He was even perhaps too weak to grasp the situation; hence, he recalls the story of a U.S. team turning back as the one he has heard of (“As they say…”). They indeed entered and, moments later, exited from the camp area, but probably not because they took fright at seeing the quantities of dead bodies. The soldiers who appeared there ahead of the others, drove into in order to symbolically liberate the camp. Only those who followed were tasked with bringing help to the survivors.
The liberation did not completely alter my Interviewee’s situation. Although his life was not put under direct threat, he remained completely depended on the others: he is one of those infirm, sick, and very young inmates who had to wait until a decision was made with regards to him and his peers. On waiting for such decision with respect to himself, Roman is watching the others who are sharing his situation – particularly, the Russians, probably inhabiting the same block. The image he has saved in his memory, though, is not exclusively built of the observations made just after the liberation. Part of this image is, also, the later-date knowledge on what eventually happened to those people and, even more so, the ←348 | 349→conviction about what they might have encountered in their own country.301 The later knowledge and beliefs have formed a filter through which my Interviewee transmits the situation he observed at that moment.
They started to segregate that. Those people. Some here, some there. And, well? Aha, the Poles, separately, the Russkis, separately. With regards to the Russian group, that group was probably the largest group, they were quickly done in by those Russian komandirs [commanders]. Forthwith. Meaning, they wouldn’t be shooting, no. They took it, ‘You’re going to go to your families [prob., ‘to the rodina’ = ‘to your homeland’; the word Mr R.S. uses, rodzina, means ‘family’ in Polish (Transl. note)], to your country.’ They set up the carriages, they arranged for… // Those Russian komandirs arranged for it with the occupation authority. Those railway carriages drew up, the cattle cars, and all those Russkis were loaded up, and, to the family [resp., homeland]. ‘To Russia will you go.’ Then, reportedly, there, those who twigged what was on, as the mission was that they’d go to Russia, apparently, but won’t see their home Russia. Because, straight away, somewhere to Siberia or someplace else, wherever. So, such was Stalin’s policy, like that. Eradicate all those who have surrendered to the Germans, and so on. And, exactly, that farewell with the Russians was such as if everyone sensed that there was something amiss. That they, // that we won’t see them anymore, as they call it.
The situation of the Russians – the Russkis, as my Interviewee and the other inmates have named them – was probably quite special. The narrator juxtaposes the image of this group against the reminiscence of the Poles: not some specific Polish inmates but Polish inmates in general. He employs generalisations and strongly reaffirms his own conviction about how big are the differences identifiable between us and them.
The Yugoslavians, the Poles, who else then?, then again, whoever wanted. It wasn’t said that… There were those liaison officers, but they wouldn’t go like a lout, unlike the Russkis. The Russkis instantly isolated the [other] Russkis, and davai [Russ., ‘go on/ahead’, ‘do it’]! And here, it was like this: an officer came along from that PRP-ian Poland302, and, well, he was talking of the advantages, of this, of that, like, ‘you come over’, this-that. But that was not by force. That was not enforced, like, let’s say, that you ought to, now, stay, and you’re going now. Therefore, we ended up, the Americans carried us from Mauthausen, us the Poles, those, I think, who so wanted. I don’t know; I didn’t want to. To a former German camp. That is, it was a military camp, well, how ←349 | 350→to say it, military barracks. But the American UNRRA made, the American UNRRA made the UNRRA camps out of those barracks, in which there were grouped those very nations, as I’m saying: Yugoslavians, Poles, and, like, some others… Slavonic people, in any case.
Not just the very words but the way they are uttered reinforces the opposition. The Russians are addressed harshly, ‘davai!’, whilst the Poles, softly: ‘of the advantages, of this, of that’. The selection did not extend to everyone. Many of them were in a physical condition that called for immediate medical assistance, in case it was not too late for it. Such people were transported to the transit camps and, once there, to hospitals. My Interviewee is hesitant in qualifying these experiences; he finally interprets them in free choice terms: “those, I think, who so wanted. I don’t know; I didn’t want to”.
Here is where a whole series of images from the period between the liberation and the return to Poland – related to his stay in hospitals, transit camps, the early days of his education at the Polish school organised there, etc. This marks a different phase of his biography yet. As he resumed his health, the trajectory experience is fading, gradually, with elements of other biographical schemes cropping up – in particular, institutional patterns (botched up hastily, under those circumstances). This new situation is reflected in the way this autobiography is constructed. The central character in this narrative is no more completely passive or expecting assistance from the others. He has a say in what goes on with/about him, and where he is. In any case, the narrator assigns such influential power to him. Still, he is continually a very young man who has not ceased being afflicted after his stay in the kacet. Hence, he needs being treated, healed, and cared about. This severely restricts the room for making real choices, limits his self-reliance, renders him dependent upon the others – his subsequent biographical carers. At the first point at that stage, Catholic nuns and other patients, former prisoners, acted as such:
To that camp, in this Regensburg. And there was Polish care [in operation] already, Polish nuns, who [were] in the hospital, because there was, such, a hospital on the spot. I got into that hospital. For I was in a condition that, apparently, I qualified for it. … There, in Regensburg, I should think I stayed rather long, I mean, maybe that was a month, maybe a month and a half. In any case, I was several months in the hospital. I improved myself [i.e. had my health improved] a little… Aha, and when from Regensburg, // I did not arrive in Poland yet, but was wandering around this Germany, and, among others, with, such, elderly people there, also from the camp, we went from Regensburg to… Würzburg. And there was also a camp, of the same kind as the one in Regensburg. And there was I too, but for a short time.
And from this Würzburg, I again got to a hospital. // Lohr am Main. … And there, in that hospital in Lohr, there had been some SS-men [i.e. during the war (PF’s note)]. And those nuns who had their tiny nunnery there attended on those Germans. So, it was not quite tasty for them, of those our Häftlings. Because there prevalently were, most of them, some ninety percent of those Häftlings were there. Well, but ←350 | 351→I should admit that, that they fulfilled their conventual role. That, all the same, in spite that it was evident that it was not what those SS-men previously… Because that American occupation, this was already under the American occupation authority, so there would’ve been no SS-men anymore. And we were all the same treated by those nuns normally, the way that there was all, to the extent that there was a dying Pole, then a nun, from there, that one… stayed with him all the night. And she nursed him, and was wiping his mouth. So, you couldn’t resent them at all, whatsoever. Their conduct was splendid, as if those were Germans really. Because they were German women, right?
And, well, out of that Lohr when I got, I then found myself in Schweinfurt. Schweinfurt, also, like, a town. Schwein means ‘swine’.303 And, a camp like that one, too. Former German barracks. And, from that Schweinfurt, I found myself in the town of Wetzlar. But that was at the very end. Because before Wetzlar, there was, still, Gießen. Gießen – a military camp, of a sort, too. Those camps everywhere [laughs], for only there was a chance for a normal life. Well, you had a place to sleep and something to eat, and all for free, and so forth. And all that the UNRRA had [i.e. was owned/ managed by UNRRA]. And it was only from Gießen that I went on to Wetzlar.
The first weeks, or perhaps months, after the liberation marked for Roman a period of ailment, treatment in various hospitals, stays at transit camps… Yet, as contrasted with the memory of the most recently suffered (and just-told) camp experiences, the reminiscence of his illness is not perceived by the Interviewee in terms of suffering, pain, helplessness.304 We only learn of his health indirectly, based on the medical diagnosis he refers to: “For I was in a condition that, apparently, I qualified for it”, together with the fact that he received treatment from several hospitals. He was a solicitous patient there. His hospital observations are positive: juxtaposed with the concentration camp, the hospital and the transit camp appeared to offer “a chance for a normal life”.305 The threshold of ‘normality’ was not set too high then: “a place to sleep and something to eat, and all for free”.←351 | 352→
Rather than talking of his post-war wanderings about the camps and hospitals, of the impossibility to return to Poland (and, primarily, too bad health for that), Mr Strój mentions his “wandering around … Germany”. Such a perspective of describing his own experiences makes them closer to the experiences and adventures of those camp mates who, having taken a greater advantage of the regained freedom, were indeed ‘wandering around’ Germany (or Austria). He thus emphasises that his situation changed radically: he is no more a prisoner; he is a free man.
The hospital interactions observed by my Interviewee in Lohr has been included in the story, together with a commentary which stops the incidental, or even-based, current of the story. There is no commentary to stop the course of the narration when he mentions the Polish nuns attending on the patients at the Regensburg hospital. They just are there, and their presence is an obvious thing to the narrator. There is no need to explain where they had come from: the narrative simply goes on. It is different when the nuns in another hospital appear to German – moreover, they appear to have tended SS-men patients before. For a sick prisoner who has just left the concentration camp (and has experienced it the way he did), combination of these (contradicting) roles in a single person causes a dissonance. There is a need to come to a halt and interpret the situation so as to add the whole experience an autobiographical meaning.
This does not come easily: the test to pass is really difficult, for he sees those nuns primarily as German women who ‘attended on’ the Germans, the SS-men, and now would take care about us, the sick prisoners, ‘Slavs’. The latter project on the nuns their own strong fears, imputing them with a dislike toward them: “it was not quite tasty for them, of those our Häftlings”; judging from the nuns’ behaviour, they recognise that they would prefer to tend their compatriots instead: “it was evident that it was not what those SS-men previously…”. In reality, there had been no SS-men then for quite long; the prisoners did not meet any, the two groups missed each other. So, what was their comparison based on? Well, they did not have to make any comparisons really – it sufficed that they coincidentally came across some women ready to extend their care to them whilst they were identified by them as Germans. The other definitions were consequent and secondary, in fact.
The sisters have successfully passed that tough test before the prisoners, with an excellent mark. They redeem their Germanness, as initially ascribed to them, with their ‘splendid conduct’. The prisoners redefine the situation. The women looking after them now turn into, primarily, nuns – the attendants who “I should admit that, that they fulfilled their conventual role”. The image of a nun keeping watch by a dying Polish prisoner all night long is the most important moment in this reminiscence – one that abolishes the dissonance and adds meaning to the entire experience. For Roman, it is not an ordinary hospital interaction, an instance of tending a patient. It is a scene of redemption of guilt, uncovering a man under ←352 | 353→the mask imposed on her (by the narrator): the mask (or, attached alien face) of a German. This reminiscence activates stronger emotion. Not quite visible in the script, this emotion grows quite audible as the narrator eagerly emphasises that the vigil lasted ‘all the night’.
Again, this recollection of moving, ‘wandering’, around Germany306 is non-historical, to a considerable degree – similarly to many other fragments of this autobiography. The story’s character, then aged sixteen, seventeen, transported several times from one camp to another, from one hospital to another – all those venues resembling one another – was losing a sense of time. Perhaps he has not even developed such a sense for himself: before his imprisonment, he was a kid; while in the kacet, the others measured the time for him. Never before has he written down or recorded, set in an order or crystallised into a narrative, any of the experiences he is now evoking in our talk. They have been functioning as casual images, and it did not matter for him how long he stayed in any of the consecutive camps, or hospital. He has never endeavoured to render his awareness more accurate, as there has been no need.
Somewhat easier to remember, more easily discernible, were the names of the towns being homes to the camps/hospitals. He can remember them well, although the sequence of his visits can only be reconstructed after a moment of consideration – which does not come easily. It cannot come easy, since the experience was one of ‘wandering around’, rather than following a deliberate itinerary.
Among the reminiscences of that hospital-and-camp stage of this biography, there is one more essential episode appearing. What I mean is a close-up on a dialogue of two former Lager inmates, now using two hospital beds next to each other. This dialogue would be incomprehensible without a broader context, and this context calls for a background structure: certain events from the earlier stages of the biography, now turning important, are being recalled for the first time.
’Cause, as we were in that camp, you know, // as we arrived from Warsaw to the camp, to Mauthausen, and later…. Then, as you talked to those elder Häftlings who’d been there a year, or two, or three, then, I… // In Schwechat, for example, when I arrived in Schwechat, then I look and see that the company there are elder, I say, ‘Sir’. And he says that, ‘You’re from Warsaw, I guess?’. I say, ‘Why?’. ‘Well, where’s that Sir from, what d’you mean: Sir? There’s nought of a Sir in here. We’re all equal, remember it, squirt.’ Because then I was still fifteen years and a half, about to be sixteen. In any case, they disaccustomed us to say ‘Sir’. There was no ‘Sir’ thing. And, there’s an interesting story. I am in that hospital in Regensburg, already in that liberated one, ←353 | 354→under the American occupation, and, well, we are all operating like in the camp. On first-name terms, all, yeah? And there was such one, I don’t know who that was; a rather elderly guy, in any case. And says he, ‘Ye snot, sod off with your familiar you. Just say: Sir, Michał, or, Mister, whatever, Kozłowski.’ And I’m saying, ‘Sir, I would call you Sir or Mister myself, wouldn’t I, but I was told not to say it. [laughs] ’Cause I am a prisoner of the camp. Consequently, what is it that you want from me?’. And he says, ‘What has been is over, and what is now is reality. It’s freedom now, and now, squirt, ‘Sir’ has remained.’ Well, it’s just to mention it. That what it was like.
Although Roman recalls these two short scenes as curiosities, of a sort, “just to mention” them aside of his report, let us take a closer look at them for a while. They namely shed a good light on a certain important aspect of in-camp social relationships.
The new-coming prisoner is not aware of the rules of the game, or rather, the games that were taking place in parallel there. He is brutally introduced to the official game at the very beginning by the SS crew managing the camp and supported by a number of kapos and some other functional persons. He is taught the rules of a secret game, an alternative life307, by the senior and more experienced inmates, in the first place. Both lessons are equal in importance – the latter one would even be more important, should increase survival potential be the measurement of its importance. Among the rules to master are ‘trivialities’ such as the way the inmates address one another. This informality must have been important for them, if they stressed it so much. It cut the social distance short, rendering the people closer to one another regardless of the diverse roles they had played, and positions held in the social hierarchy, in their earlier lives. A suspension of those pre-camp distinctions could reinforce the immediate bonds of ‘then and there’, at least to a small extent. And, it probably gave the simplest reply to the depersonalisation applied at the entrance, the moment they arrived at the camp.
A young Varsovian arriving at the camp at the last phase of its existence (it was probably the worst of the phases) has little opportunity gain a command of the rules of the in-camp game as good as the prisoners with a few years of seniority had done. He has to make up for his backlogs with their support – and so he does. Instructed pointedly at some point, he switches into friendly terms with the others – those with whom he can communicate at all.
He appears to be a diligent student who takes the camp lessons to heart. Quite much, if not too much – as he would not know that the rules he was taught are ←354 | 355→not relevant after the liberation; or, in fact, rather than having quit being objectively binding, they were subject to instant denouncement. Another inmate, the camp mate, companion, kacet-/Lager-man, Mauthausen-man now has the right to nullify the in-camp interaction rules (“What has been is over, and what is now is reality”) and demand that the suspended order be reinstated. This symbolic order, in fact, builds on its presumptive existence and validity (the camp situation marked a departure from it – not the other way round); it thus suffices for just one partner of this interaction to refer to it, so the other(s) will respect it. Especially if that ‘other’ one is a teenage ailing and infirm ‘squirt’, laid on a hospital bed. However, the other prisoner’s demand to address him ‘sir’, suitably with the age (difference), has so firmly stuck in Roman’s mind also because it strongly contrasts with his ongoing experience of contacts with the other former Mauthausen inmates, today’s Club members. These contacts are direct, informal, often friendly. The former prisoners are camp mates to one another at the reunions. Although they had not met at the camp, their shared experience of stay in the kacet is the foundation of their specific communication code. This code is obviously unidentifiable when we look at this milieu through the memorising rituals they cultivate; it clearly surfaces as soon as we gain insight into the less ceremonial communication practices characteristic of the ordinary, working meetings of former concentration camp inmates.308
This transitory stage of Roman’s biography, between the camp and his return to Poland, one more experience, so far completely absent, appears. He resumed his education while still at the Wetzlar transit camp – the one he stayed at longest, probably for a dozen or so months (it being difficult to find how long exactly):
Because that was at the very end, before the departure. For there were // representatives of Polish intelligentsia coming out of the AK [Home Army], they created there a gymnasium [i.e. junior high school] and a lyceum [grammar school] for young people. And, some lad said to me; he says, ‘You old boy, don’t you creep across these camps here, just go to Wetzlar, ’cause there’s a Polish school, regular, there. You’ll go to school.’ And yes indeed. And there I completed, I think, a year and a half. Well, ’cause, you know, because I don’t know what it was like there; in any case… I definitely have ←355 | 356→this ID somewhere here, damn it… I’ve got it somewhere here but would have to look for it. Damn… I would’ve… I mean, I’ve got a certificate, like, that I attended, one-and-a-half of gymnasium. Meaning, form one and two. Two forms of a gymnasium, let this be so.
My Interviewee’s autobiographical memory has lost a lot of his eighteen months education at the local gymnasium. The effort he is making to find a school certificate hinders the effort of his memory. The very document could possibly help evoke some specific images, but his focus on the searching adds to distracting his attention from the story he is telling. In this recollection – or rather, a note in the memory, recording the occurrence of such biographical episode – there appears a significant figure of the anonymous ‘lad’ Roman had met earlier somewhere else. It is this man’s advice/suggestion/instruction (the sentence constructed in the narrator’s memory by no means accurately repeats the actually uttered words) that Roman’s ‘wandering around’ turns into a linear process of school education at the transit camp. This sets his experiences in an order along the time axis. The very next experience is his return to Poland:
And, anything up there yet? // Aha, when I completed that school that one-year-and-a-half of the gymnasium, then, well… // From this Wetzlar… What happened with that Wetzlar? Ah, right. Then, I found myself in Mannheim. Mannheim, there is a… // there was a camp, there were barracks there too, the only thing being that there was a training camp, already, for the Poles, and not only for the Poles. For all those from the East: Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, I think, also, there. In Mannheim, was a camp, you know… What was it called, just a moment… So to put it… Blow me down… Well, the memory takes a beating… Guard companies. Right! Mannheim, the guard companies. And I was for a rather short time there, I’m not telling exactly you how long; in any case, I came over to Poland from there. From Mannheim; they brought the carriages along for us. And here, as you can make out, they write ‘Kotzbuch’ here, or something of the sort. I don’t know, maybe this Kotzbuch thing was there, some sort of, on the way. But maybe that’s some transmission station. Because we were taken from Mannheim. Taken home already.
Memory is indeed playing a trick on my Interviewee at this moment. He attempts to develop a coherent story, taking into account all the biographical events he considers of essence – those he would not consider essential are missing in this narration. But he is getting problems with filling some of them with relevant content. Just the framing has remained, checkable against the documents: the name of the last German town housing a ‘training camp’ he temporarily stayed at; the name of some station en route, which refers to nothing specific. Although Roman has lost access to the memory of certain experiences, he has never lost his awareness that he once had this memory, and that it was of importance for him. This is a tough moment. It would perhaps have been easier if he had once (re)constructed this story, be it as an oral account. Then, the previous reconstructions could have been built upon, rather than straining the memory to make it reach for the experiences as such.←356 | 357→
There is, however, one experience that reenlivens my Interviewee’s memory. It precedes his return to Poland, provides the context for it, and makes the reminiscences follow the expressive images that are crucial for this biography. These images enable the speaker to regain control over the narration he is producing.
For I came forward by myself. Because some unpleasant scenes, sort of, started taking place later. For instance, the Americans were of various origins: German, such one, such other one, and so forth. Well, the way they handled the Poles was unpleasant. In the first phase, it was all OK, and then began breaking down. … And then Americans were moreover visiting Poland here, the Bierut’s Poland, and were reassured that Poland guarantees everything. And they came with such mission back to the U.S. occupation [zone]. And there were meetings, like, right? And they were saying, ‘To Poland, go! There’s nothing you could do in here, this is not your country.’ In spite of this, three hundred thousand Poles stayed there. After the war, three hundred thousand Poles stayed at the occupations [i.e. Occupation Zones]: English ones [sic], French, and American one. But those who made up their minds, like me, we then came over. Once the AK-men arrived before me, those who were on [= held] various functions, at the rank of major, and he’d also go to Poland, having no fear? Then, was I to fear? I was a private. Who would’ve even guessed, would they, that I was with the AK? Given the situation, as I said [i.e. described it] then, what I said was, well, ’I’m going!’ Ah, and I moreover wrote a letter, via the Red Cross, and my family responded. My mother and my sisters: ‘We are there’. … In Bielany [an area in northern Warsaw, part of the borough of Żoliborz (Transl. note)], here in Żoliborz; then I’m saying [to myself], ‘Where am I to go? Looking for luck [someplace else], while having a family here, in Warsaw?’ Warsaw was all debris, that’s another thing. But, it was there. But, Żoliborz still stood.
Known to us from the other reports, this is an image of a biographical crossroads at which the former camp inmates arrived, trying to make up their minds on whether to come back to Poland. The split-up of the two possible paths begins appearing much clearer; the choice, no more a spontaneous emotional response, probably becomes tougher. More is known and hence, there are more ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ calling for being taken into consideration. Beside a knowledge on the situation in Poland, there is an extra factor that appears where they are right now: those running the transit camp incite its residents to leave; the site had been devised as a transit camp, after all. For my Interviewee, unlike moments ago, it has ceased to be an opportunity for a ‘normal life’.
Roman Strój describes his decision to return to Poland in terms of reasonable calculation. His involvement in conspiratorial activity with the Home Army is calculated the most carefully. What sometime earlier and elsewhere, in 1944 in Warsaw, was an incidental choice – a decision to simply join one of the friends – now turns out to be of key importance, as it is stigmatised by the new Polish authorities that have a power at their disposal and can impose and enforce their own definitions. Stigmatisation by the authorities is gradable and, according to ←357 | 358→what was known at the time, in direct ratio to the engagement or, looking from the opposite perspective, to ‘having had a hand’ in the affairs. The degree of involvement has to somehow be determined, which is a difficult exercise if applied to each instance separately. The easiest solution was to simply relate it a priori to the military rank with the AK: the higher the rank, the worse for its holder today; hence, there are such who ought to really worry, some others should be worried much less, others still – just a little bit. Once those first mentioned, the top risk group, resolved to come back to Poland, this should probably mean that there is no menace to a private, especially if one is like Roman: unverifiable, enlisted casually. Such was the recognition of the situation by my Interviewee then – or, at least, such is the image of this recognition he constructs today.
He must have been intensively preoccupied with this calculation; it is around it that he has spun the reminiscence of his return to Poland. The other justification: entering into contact with his mother and sisters who have survived the war and are waiting in the Warsaw district of Żoliborz (‘still standing’), is mentioned as a trailer, as if coincidentally. The text record would indicate that this incentive was secondary; the sound recording would not reassure this conclusion. Perhaps the yearning for his relatives and for ‘his own’ Warsaw was equally important as those calculations; but this is not easy to render, particularly if you are a man. He finds it easier instead to recount the occasion-related, or external, so to speak, layer of life experiences.
The following account definitely follows this particular track. It becomes merely an epitome where the post-war experiences (filling, after all, a major part of the life, in quantitative terms) get boiled down to a mere few sentences:
[RS:] And, well, just from this very Mannheim, via that Kotzbuch, Hotzbuch, or whatever its name is at all, I arrived in Poland. And, well? And I started… // Which year it was? Forty-seven? In forty-seven did I arrive. But in any case, some, of the sort, maybe, half a year maybe, or something, perhaps, I sat for a while and got enrolled with the mechanical gymnasium and lyceum. Here, in Warsaw, the Traugutt Park. Well, and I completed that gymnasium and lyceum. And, well, to the work. And, later on, just like that. Here am I working, there am I working… If [you] want, I can [tell] you…
[PF:] Yes, go ahead, please.
[RS:] Well, then, after that gymnasium, I worked for the Light Industry Design Office. … Later on, from that Office, as I finished… The time-period of my work, that is hard for me to tell here now. Not a whole year, for certain. Later on, from that Office… Aha, from the Office, I worked for rather long in WSK Okęcie. The Okęcie Communication Equipment Manufactory. And there I worked, I should think, for some ten years. And, from Okęcie WSK [sic], I moved officially to the Ministry of Mechanical Industry. Because such ones, young ones, were in need there. And, from the Ministry of Mechanical Industry, to the Union of Industry – one grade lower, then – to the Union of Pharmaceutical and Medical Industry. In Warsaw. And that marked the end of a professional career.←358 | 359→
No images of the trip to Poland, arrival in Warsaw, or greeting by his family. The unconstrained narration has completely lost its earlier rhythm, getting bogged down in the bare names of his subsequent employers, finally coming to a halt – at the last point of this lapidary professional resume.
How to explain this switch? Quitting the labour of memory, the building of follow-up narration, the tackling of biographical details? Continuation of the story is definitely hindered by my Interviewee’s tiredness. His been telling his story for more than an hour now; it is hot in his apartment; the noise made by a drilling machine coming out of an adjacent flat has been bothering us for some time now. A moment earlier, Roman’s wife was back from her shopping. She has now brought us coffee and cookies (“Please help yourself…”). This has added to our deteriorated concentration. But it seems these only are extra hindrances: normally, such impediments are surmounted easily and unnoticeably if the story flows swiftly on.
The crucial thing is, apparently, the Interviewee’s conviction that his history came to an end with the end of the war – including, perhaps, his stay at the transit camps; or, in any case, the part of this history he considers suitable for an autobiographical story. Its background is formed of important and distinct events and historical processes: the Occupation, Warsaw Uprising, concentration camps. It is of no relevance that the background proved blurred and unfocused in a number of moments, making the narrative non-historical. Important is the awareness that such a background exists. Hence, my request that he tell a limitless story of his life, gives way to my Interviewee’s conviction that, once we are recording an interview within an international project documenting the lives of Mauthausen inmates, the story’s focus should be the camp experience (and, the one from just before then and from shortly afterwards). And this is what he sticks by.
There is one more – a deeper, to my mind – dimension to this end of an individual history. Career is the central experience of the post-war phase of Roman Strój’s biography. He namely performed office work at a subordinate position with State-run institutions – primarily, so-called industrial unions, the sites being almost symbolic to the centrally controlled economy in what was the People’s Republic of Poland. His brief listing of the main stages of this career bears traces of the language used at that time. My Interviewee uses this language as it is the only one his can use to relate that particular experience. This language is moreover part of that experience. The very names of his workplaces, plain for the narrator and requiring no comment, sound rather weird today and not quite seem to be ringing a bell, particularly for a young reader. Whilst these names stand out, the few sentences the narrator has just uttered bear the recorded more subtle traces of immersion in that specific language: “I moved officially”, “[the] young … were in need”, “one grade lower”. Immersion in the language implies the way the world is seen and experienced, the two facets being inseparable. The descriptions he uses denote an inertness, torpidity of this career, passiveness of the narrator. Career means, in this case, top-down, externally controlled ‘official’ shifts ‘between the grades’, or levels, based on the structure’s needs. Thus, career was not what we would be inclined to associate it with today: self-development, moving upward in ←359 | 360→social hierarchies, and making use of one’s talents. It is not conditional, in the first place, on the individual’s activity, resourcefulness, diligence and industry.
We do not learn anything essential about the work Mr Strój performed in those institutions or establishments over a few dozen years. Not only because he considers this detail irrelevant: he cannot really describe this labour in any specific terms, somehow recount it. Pointing to the institutions he was employed with distracts the attention – the narrator’s attention too – from the vagueness of the career experience in this autobiographical memory. A similar manner of evoking the career in the communist Poland is characteristic of a high number of former camp inmates’ accounts, for those who once worked for State-owned institutions on subordinate, or thoroughly second-rate, positions. The experience of such work turns blurred in their autobiographical memory, losing the focus, eluding the narration. It is as if all those Unions, ‘Central Boards’, Ministries, etc., used to suck the people into their monotonous current, causing a biographical drift, of which we cannot say much today apart from the fact that it appeared.309
The short passage on Roman Strój’s passive career concludes the first part of his account: free narrative. There is no coda, punchline, summarising afterthought that he offers. He simply stops at this point and waits for my questions. So, we smoothly pass on to the next phase of the interview. I feel supported by the conviction, possibly shared by my Interviewee to an extent, that we will make this story complete with the help of my questions.
The second part of this interview does not succeed in observing the chronology of memories in line with the chronology of the events being evoked. My Interviewee follows the associations cropping up in his mind as he answers my questions. I am not going to tame this labour of memory. I prefer to accompany it, as far and as long as I can; the result is that also my questions are losing the chronology as they try to follow what the narrator’s memory has just evoked. In analysing this part of the account, the sequence of images matters less, and consistent tracing of their sequence would extremely hinder the grasping of the story as a whole, also in view of the reader. In order to facilitate the perception, I will try and furnish the relevant fragment of my analysis with an order of its own, which only partly accurately renders the sequence of the narrative.
The beginning of this more interactive part of the interview is not easy. What has so far been completely neglected in the narrative is not easily recallable now with questions. This concerns especially Roman’s post-war family life, about which I am trying to get to know, anything, in the first place. This deficit draws my attention in particular; yet, instead of any vivid memories evoked in respect of that experience, I can only hear the laconic sentence:←360 | 361→
And, the family… In 1954, I got married. Well, and: one son was born in fifty-five, and the other one in fifty-six. So, the family… Some have two kids, some others, three. Well, and we [are] on our own.
All is taking place in its regular and ordinary manner: marriage, the first kid, second, the grandchildren. Not much to recount, really. There is nothing out of the ordinary in that he and his wife have now remained on their own, the major tasks in their lives having been fulfilled. The last short sentence is uttered without a tone of regret or pretence toward the children, in terms that the parents are alone now, and should perhaps be cared for by them instead. The situation is as it is, this is the order of things, a natural course of human life, full-stop.
An equally summary answer is given, it turns out, to my attempt to get to know more of his life as a pensioner. My Interviewee evades building a narration on his experiences from the last twenty-five years. Instead, he has focused on finding when he ceased working. The memory cannot help find the details, so we refer to the documents. A moment later, we successfully find the date of this essential biographical change: “I worked in the Union in the year 1980. Must’ve been something of the sort”. Although the date is the least interesting detail for me, I cannot learn more – at least for the time being.
Having sought assistance with the documents prompted to me by Roman, I notice that the dates of his imprisonment in Pruszków and, later on, in Auschwitz and Mauthausen detailed in them are not in compliance with those he quoted as part of his random narrative. Rectifying such inaccuracies with the help of the Interviewee is a regular procedure in biographical interviewing, particularly if the recording is put in the archive to become a peculiar, though rightful, historical source. The point is not even to gain certainty as to the detailed dating – or, by no means, to point out to the errors. The purpose is, rather, to stimulate the memory, helping it reach for the once-evoked experiences along a path different than the one already paved.
[PF:] I’d have another question. Here in the documents, it is written that the departure for Mauthausen was on 20th September, not August. That’s September.
[RS:] Oh, that’s possible. I’m really sorry. Because I said, some two weeks, but that… This is what’s important [pointing to the document]. ’Cause this tells us everything. On this document everything else is based. And, to Auschwitz, it’s also written here: the thirteenth… September? Serious?
[PF:] Yes. Maybe there’s an error?
[RS:] No, impossible, there couldn’t be any error. Well, then, I am sorry, in that case. Then, in accord with that… // September’s there, and September’s here too. And, in my case… It means that I must have been longer in that transit camp in Pruszków. Not two weeks, as I have said. But I was there for a longer time, till it caught September. And, from Pruszków, on that September, September thirteenth, right? Well, then. I ended up in Auschwitz on the thirteenth of September. Because we had only travelled for one night. … And then all’s in accord. On September the thirteenth, I found myself, from Pruszków, in Auschwitz.←361 | 362→
The data contained in the Arolsen certificate is the ‘appeal instance’, the last resort for Roman. He believes this data reflects the reality: “this tells us everything”. He is aware that his memory tends to evoke images without precise historical footnotes, and now he treats his task very seriously and wants to give a reliable report. This is the reason why the rough autobiographical story he constructed a few dozen minutes ago needs being verified in this fragment, not only with respect to the dates. New recollections, concrete images absent earlier, are unveiled:
[RS:] These were factory floors, floors of those trains [RS refers to the transit camp in Pruszków (PF’s note)]. And you slept just like [unclear], what you had with you, some blanket or anything, then you’d get the blanket bundled up, stretched, there were no conditions there. There were conditions for waiting standing. That’s what I’d name it. The people did various things, well, ’cause they were laying some planks, what not, right? The family… For, the whole families [were there], the wife, the husband. Then, they had some, say, blankets or something, and then [placed them] under their heads, and they slept like that. Not like, the conditions in Pruszków, there were no conditions there. Nothing was prepared there, ’cause that was a transit camp, of those that, from the Uprising, further off into the world. So, do please rectify it. … What I mean is, September the thirteenth, from Pruszków to Auschwitz, and later, the twentieth of September, right?
[PF:] Later on… Yes, September 20th, to Mauthausen.
[RS:] This is it, meaning, all’s correct. I mean, how long, there? That was thirteenth, and there, twenty-what?
[PF:] The twentieth. That is, seven days.
[RS:] Seven days, that’s what I just said.
[PF:] And there, in Auschwitz, was a quarantine, or…
[RS:] No, these were, such, numbered blocks. I was in block number two. That was a quarantine. That was a quarantine, the thing is, we were carrying some stones already then. There was a job to do then yet. I mean, it was not like, you’d get up and saunter around. The Germans did have it like that. Whatever [it was], you had to do something. And, on that occasion, there were situations you wouldn’t be ready to believe. For example, we had come over from the Warsaw Uprising to Auschwitz, meaning, from Pruszków, and that very Höss man; that very chief, chief, so to speak…
[RS:] The Commandant of the Auschwitz camp. And well, he said to us that we didn’t ask you to [come] here, and so on, that it is our fault, that you had ventured on this combat yourselves, and what for, no one requested you to do it, and so on. And, overall, he – a saint man. Well, but that’s not bothering that he killed two men. Meaning, he set a dog. One, with a dog, and the other [was], like, a kapo, also a Hitlerite, SS-man. He kicked someone on the vitals or something, and two men in front of the building went into the ground, just like that. That’s what it was like. Such were the courses of events.←362 | 363→
As it turns out, then, the trauma of the beginnings of the camp trajectory has made an imprint in his memory with images much more distinct that we could infer from the earlier fragments of this narrative. This is still a story on collective experience extending to a number of people who were transported to the camps in the course of the Warsaw Uprising; while the individual trajectory perishes, melts in this crowd, the concrete things and details, observed at that time, have not perished. This is true also for the symbolic scene of greeting at Auschwitz by the camp commander. A similar image – featuring the figure of an SS-man, the commandant310 in most cases, less frequently a block-leader311 – reappears in a number of accounts. And, it is added a ‘Warsaw’ peculiarity now. The standard announcement that ‘the only way out is through the chimneystack’, meant to intensify the shock at the arrival, does not appear here. Instead, Roman quotes Rudolf Höss’s words about an error, guilt, and consequences of the Uprising, with which he greeted the new transport, as we can learn. The shock of the camp initiation is, however, no less acute, or perhaps even severer: the softer phrases are accompanied by a cruel slaying of two inmates.
Symptomatic for this narrative is that this expressive greeting scene – evoked, after all, by the attempt to determine the accurate dates of Roman’s stay in the individual camps – functions as an image detached from a concrete place. In this sense, it again proves non-historical. We are trying to determine this detail together, by looking it up in the document:
[PF:] Was that in the central camp of Auschwitz, or was it in Birkenau?
[RS:] What it says here is ‘Auschwitz- Birkenau’. Well, I can’t tell the difference between this Birkenau and… We entered that main gate, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. And there stood those barracks, and number 2, I was in number 2.
[PF:] And were they two-storey, these barracks?
No, one-storey. All that, on one… There were no other. But those brick ones, they were different. I was not in any of those brick ones. Maybe that’s this Birkenau. I was in a wooden one. Of red brick, then they could perhaps have some storeys there. But when it comes to our barracks, they were wooden, one-storey. The plank-beds were, clear. You know what it’s like. That, the ground-floor, // the centre. ←363 | 364→Three-level ones, such were inside the barrack, but the barracks were one-storey. Whereas here, where those bricks were, blocks made of red brick in Auschwitz, it could perhaps have been Birkenau, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A rough story like this, not polished with the later-gained knowledge and multiple repetitions, remains more authentic. Roman, then fifteen years old, could indeed have had no idea of what camp he was at. A number of his camp mates, some of them young men, could have been similarly unaware of it. Most of them, however, made up for this backlog with their later knowledge which they have integrated with their camp experience. My Interviewee has never carried out such ‘processing’.
With the help of my questions concerning the relationships between the prisoners on their way to the camp (first, to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Mauthausen), Roman evokes the subsequent camp experiences, trying to comment on them and generalise them:
[PF:] And, in this transport, were there those same people who before then had been going from Warsaw to Auschwitz, or were they some other ones then?
[RS:] No, those were others, partly yes, partly no. It was mixed.
[PF:] And, did you have there a friend or an acquaintance with whom, all that time…
[RS:] I had a colleague in Pruszków yet. To Pruszków, as we still were on our way, I didn’t have any yet, for in Boernerowo I had no friends or mates. But there were some two persons, of a sort, and I knew them by sight. Later on, in Pruszków, I did meet, quite a lot, from Koło, from Obozowa [St.]. But this later got smashed up, ’cause one turned right, the other turned left… For those hangars of this State Rail are enormous, quite. There are the tracks, they’re repairing them from below, those specialists. So, it is enormous there, suffice you talked with him, and he’s not there anymore by tomorrow. Or else… Because there were moments, like, that some would escape. In the night especially, with the various arrangements behind. Because, for instance, the AK conspiracy, or some other organisations, arranged for a variety of smugglings. I wouldn’t have the opportunity, but perhaps he had one. But, that was. Whereas in the camp itself, there might have been, damn it, but you wouldn’t have [= pay] attention to it, ’cause you were driven by the whirl of those… of that time which did not take the humans into account. There was no possibility, or even willingness to share your time with some colleague, because that was burdensome. And even if, say, you were involved too much, because of some scruples, ’cause something whatever, and there was no time for it. That simply was unthinkable, for any bonds to be there.
This is a potent report on the way to the camp, focused, however, not on describing the way the group was making but instead, on the social relationships between the companions. A mere few days before these events, the young Roman’s mates had been one of the central reference groups for him: he had spent most his time with them, roaming around the streets of Wola, doing conspiratorial business. Suddenly, he remains on his own, thrown into a situation that is completely alien ←364 | 365→for him, and extremely dynamic too, so he cannot grasp or comprehend what is going on. No surprise that he evokes those occurrences as a violent destruction of the tissue of social relationships: closeness, friendship, support in the others. He takes effort to build new relationships but the structure, again, immediately falls into ruin, ‘gets smashed up’. He remains on his own, with a sense of loneliness. He constructs quasi-general rules governing the motion of that steamy ‘whirl’, absorbing him and everyone around. In this subjective experience, the time, rather than passing slowly312, is ‘driving’ the humans, ‘not taking them into account’; there is ‘too little’ of it for any scruples, bond-building, developing and keeping up human relationships.
The interpretation of human relationships at the concentration camp as proposed by Roman ought not to be surprising. Not quite because it has been reconfirmed by the other accounts – in some of them, yes indeed – but because it sheds light on his own camp trajectory: being chased away from one camp to another, switching several times to a new activity, labour done with international Kommandos, death march – all that did not favour the building or preservation of interpersonal ties. He must have been building some in order to survive – but was offered no chance for them to last longer and grow strong. When he met some men from Warsaw in a Schwechat barrack, he was taken moments after from there to another camp.
There were some talks – in Schwechat, with those mates. … I certainly talked to many. But, how it was, what it was like… … Because I, as is known, I was transferred from Schwechat to Mödling in connection with that sickness, and had the breakup of contact and bond with them too. And there were completely different people in Mödling. Completely alien to me.
Had those bonds appeared a greater deal, involving not only the Varsovians whose situation was similar to his own, and had they not been broken up so violently, Roman would have perhaps not needed permanent medical care after the liberation (and several weeks afterwards): he would have probably lived to see the liberation in much a better condition.
This part of our conversation resumes the moment of his arrival in Mauthausen in September 1944. Extremely brief in the unrestrained story – with only the second stay in Mauthausen, in April 1945, after the death march, was recounted in more detail – it now reappears as a clear image:←365 | 366→
This is, such a, permanent rule with the camps, any camp you can possibly figure out in the world, under the Hitlerites’ custody. It goes like that: you arrive at the station, but without any luggage, which means that you luggage has stayed in Auschwitz. You’re getting there [unclear] and the plate, with the number. And, you’re done then. We’re going to Mauthausen, get undressed in front of the Waschraum. The Waschraum – the mikvah and bath, compulsory, have any lice, or no lice, but you’ve got to get the bath. We’re bathing, another thing is that these were the beginnings and the lice were there yet. In spite that you were some seven days in this Auschwitz only, but the lice were there yet. They cross over instantly. Well, and so: the mikvah, from the mikvah – to the barrack, on the double. There, there too, a line set up like at the roll-call. And, count off! How many there were … must be in line with what has flown into the barracks. They have calculated all that and, well, now are receiving the rags in front of the door, well, from the cap up to that… Getting dressed. Boots or what, and inside you go. The kapo, that Stubendienst, shows you: you’re placed there. You’ve been given a bowl, all those things and stuff you need, to live in the camp. And, well? That’s it.
This scene is, again, constructed as a group experience, identical to all the newcoming inmates, all the Zugangs. It is moreover recalled hastily, to exemplify something obvious and well-known – the routine camp procedure that is applied not only at Mauthausen but in all the German kacets. There is not even a single sentence uttered which would suggest the narrator has his individual experience, what he has been through, in mind: he has again vanished in the crowd.
The following reminiscences render the earlier-enumerated stages of his camp route more specific. These stages are many and they last rather short, each having impressed some characteristic image or sign in my Interviewee’s memory. For Roman, the quarry is the token of Mauthausen. The quarry was the first labour site encountered by almost all the new inmates. It triggered dismay, as intended by the SS (the surviving former inmates have preserved vivid reminiscences of it), forming the final stage of the camp initiation.
And later on, normally, every day, they then brought over those things I told you. That, either they’d push you down from the quarry into that, // into the precipice – for there, it was so that if those one-hundred-and-thirty steps which you walked from Mauthausen, from the quarry, one-hundred-and-thirty steps, then you climbed up the hill, and there was a wall. The thing is, it’s a known thing that this path was somewhat remote from that abyss. But the abyss, water was there, ’cause, as is known, where there’s a quarry, there’s water too, yeah? Well, then there were moments that, let’s say, not just that you’ve climbed up there with this stone, your last-ditch effort, then moreover… // Particularly, the Jews. I must point out here that it’s the Jews who had, especially, that, // this tremendous privilege of martyrdom that they were thrown down. But they accepted that somewhat weirdly quietly, being Jews all the same. You could see it, couldn’t you, that the Hitlerite would push him down. And he wouldn’t believe till the end. He still thought he might save his life, that he’d squirm somehow still. He’d hide among us, shrink, this, the stone, that… And the S[S] -man walked up higher: ‘Jude, komm hier!’. Well, and that’s what it was. But that’s not just the Jews. ←366 | 367→I could see it personally, especially that the SS-men had a fondness for the Jews. But nowhere is it said that the Poles, or the Gypsies, or whoever else, had any preferential treatment. Because, be you cheeky there, no matter, a small stone, or… // Because, for instance, everybody from the quarry, if he walked up there, then everybody… [had to carry a stone (PF’s note)].
This reminiscence – generalised again, as if Roman were unable to recount his experience otherwise than by making it part of the fate of the camp prisoners at large – is something more, or perhaps even something different, than a simple footprint impressed by the camp. In fact, the memory does not reflect the past events but processes and interprets them. Such interpretation is dependent upon a number of current contexts – among other things, one’s own convictions, cognitive patterns, collective memory within which the autobiographical memory functions, stereotypes, and so on. This fragment of Roman Strój’s account is a good example of such creative labour of memory.
Evocation of the quarry is a permanent motif in the recollections and reports of former Mauthausen inmates, and in historical studies and guides for visitors to the former camp site. The quarry was situated in the camp’s immediate vicinity, at the foot of a steep precipice; the site has for many years now been available to visitors of the Mauthausen Memorial Site. Former inmates are an important group of visitors. The quarry is a peculiar icon of this particular camp, its distinguishing mark, differentia specifica. Also for Roman Strój, who once worked there. The image he evokes draws not only on the labour but also, on the icon. For instance, the number of stair-steps the inmates climbed while carrying the stones, drooping; the steep from which SS-men at times threw the prisoners down. We do not know which details come from the narrator’s own observation and which are based on the talks with the other club members, or are part of a generalised picture of the camp, which also appears in these rougher, not-quite-smoothened narrations. A minor error has sneaked in, by the way: my Interviewee gives the number of stairs, a fixed element of the icon, but the number he quotes is incorrect. This is not the major thing, though; once a number ought to be quoted, let it be there, even if not quite precise.313←367 | 368→
More important that this numerical detail is another fragment of the quarry reminiscence: murdering of the prisoners working there by throwing them down from the rocky precipice – especially, the Jews coerced to join the penal company. The SS crew jargon called the victims of this cruel play the Fallschirmspringer – ‘parachute jumpers’; the site where the crime was committed was the Fallschirmspringerwand – ‘jumpers’ rock’. This horrid image also reappears in the reminiscences of a number of former inmates who had worked in that very quarry314; in Roman’s account, though, has a larger purpose than testifying to the crime he had eye-witnessed. The prisoners (or, perhaps, just one such prisoner) killed there are not merely victims of the crime. Since, apart from being inmates, they are Jewish, my Interviewee ascribes to them a number of traits he considers plainly related to being a Jew. Their deaths are a ‘privilege of martyrdom’, and offering they had been called to make, with no retreat, whereas they are not willing to believe in their destiny and are trying to evade their lot. They are ‘contriving’ something. The narrator is lowering his voice at this point, as if he wanted to stress that they were contriving, using some neat tricks. He names some of them outright: shrinking, hiding, hiding behind a stone, or finding no name for some: ‘this’, ‘that’. This solicitation appears futile, though, and so they had been ever since, it is just that the Jews had not recognised them, or did not want to believe they could never again reverse the destiny. Clearer than the transcript, the sound recording shows that Roman contrasts their ignorance and disbelief against his own knowledge – not the one of today, this would be too obvious, but the knowledge he allegedly had there and then. Thereby, he has increased the distance between them, on the one hand, and himself and the other non-Jewish inmates working at that time in the quarry, on the other.
The memory of this tragic experience is conglomerated of the event and its interpretation. The latter feeds on stereotypical images of Jewish people, through the prism of which my Interviewee sees the real Jews getting killed at the quarry. As is known, stereotypes may be built upon contradictions. The Jews being killed move around quietly, “being Jews all the same”, and simultaneously, in the very same moment, are clutching at straws to avoid death. None of their dying strategies can really be approved by the narrator: quietness is a sign of passiveness and impotence, while ‘squirming’ is nonsensical given the inevitability and obviousness of martyrdom at the ‘parachute jumpers’ wall’.←368 | 369→
Having evoked these experiences, Roman rushes to add that Jews were not the only ones to have got killed there. Although he could see the Jews being killed in the quarry, he knows that other inmates, Poles included, were murdered in that place too. He is therefore willing to remind about it, so as to make it clear that the Jews did not hold the monopoly on martyrdom at all.
I have paused at this image in order to unveil, to some extent, the complex labour of (his) autobiographical memory, which features Jews many a time, but rarely, so to speak, in a neutral manner.
Let us still stay for a while among the images from the beginning of Roman’s stay in the camp – the quarantine at Mauthausen. These recollections occupy a central place in his camp experience, being the basis for his understanding of (the) camp, and his philosophy of survival. This is one of the reasons why they form the framework of the entire camp route: they have been reinforced by the repeated quarantine done at the same camp shortly before the liberation.
[RS:] You’d enter there, but couldn’t go out. This was the assumption. And, no holds barred, ’cause you were nothing. You entered the camp and you were nowhere, as simple as that. There was nobody to stand up for you, ’cause there was no like power. And if you only had a bit of luck… // Well, superior to us were those who spoke the German language. He who could speak German could clamber up the Stubendienst, the, some sort of, Arbeit-… I mean, the one… who writes… … up the Schreiber, he could. It was easier for him, in any case, to get into that camp elite. Whereas those who did not have such possibilities, nor the language, and so on, or had no luck, [unclear]. Because I, for instance, had a mate who was in another camp but says… // He said to me thus: ‘Roman, if not for the fact that it was a concentration camp, I wouldn’t have ever sensed that I’ve survived a camp.’ Thus good it was about him. But his posture was one of a German, himself, and his behaviour, and all these qualities of a German. And the Germans sensed [it].
[PF:] Did he speak German too?
[RS:] Yes, and they sensed some kindred spirit in him. And he was well. Was well, right. But there are also such, we were regular Häftlings from the camp, from the Warsaw Rising, so there was no option anyhow. Besides, the time [was] too short to… But, all in all, let’s stop talking about time. … So, I, here already… In any case, you’re not asking me about it, myself neither, well, because, what’s there to talk about? An annihilation camp, end of story.
The image of ‘clashing against’ the camp, getting threatened with the camp reality and helplessness reappears once again, and once again is it being built as a group experience: the mechanism of a totalitarian institution. For those brought to Mauthausen by the Warsaw transport in autumn 1944, the camp is an overpowering, crushing force in face of which they remain helpless. But this is not true with all of them, as it occurred then on the spot and would be reconfirmed afterwards, in the narrator’s talks with camp mates, not necessarily from the same camp. The camp mechanism is a social one, and therefore it is a complex mechanism. Whereas some of the inmates are ‘nothing’, ‘nowhere’, having ‘no option’ ←369 | 370→other than the camp agony they are bearing, there are such who are assigned much better, more ‘bearable’ roles. Better for them – which also means, more important in terms of holding up the entire camp mechanism. The condition for receiving them is the holding of resources valued high there and the skill to activate them in those specific circumstances. Roman has none such capital whatsoever. There is no one to ‘stand up for’ him. He is part of the low rank in the camp hierarchy – an ordinary Häftling, “regular … from the camp, from the Warsaw Rising”. He watches from this low position those inmates who from the very beginning took these better, higher positions, which remain very distant for him. Seen from this perspective, even a Stube (barrack-room) assistant – the Stubendienst, or the Blockschreiber – block scribe, form part of the camp’s elite, and ‘are well’. They are distant, out-of-the-ordinary: they can speak German; their postures are German-like; are of ‘qualities’; their souls are kindred, which the Germans can ‘sense’. Or, they are lucky persons.
All this is beyond my Interviewee’s reach at that moment. The moment the camp’s first shock wave goes down, he makes temporary attempts at improving his situation – be it by arranging for an extra bowl of soup. Yet he cannot be lucky again:
Just an example, exactly, what situations were occurring. You could get a spanking any time. Any time, you could be destroyed, and, paaah! – you’re not there. I once had such incident myself. I joined a queue with the cauldrons to get some soup. For it was so that the Häftlings, after all; had to carry soup for themselves, to distribute it among everybody, right? Well, then, who reported, he’d go. And there, at the kitchen, he could ask, I assume, some Pole to give him something, and just eat it. Once he’s eaten there, he’d bring along, and get his second portion here. And I, well, wanted to do the same, use the opportunity. And from that block sixteen, as we arrived from Auschwitz to Mauthausen, and were on the quarantine at block sixteen, I can see the others [are doing it] and then I reported too. Well then. I reported there myself, with a Pole, too, and engineer. A canny lad he, he got than tin bowl thrown into the cauldron. Well, just listen, he threw it to the cauldron, I don’t know about it, if I knew it or not; in any case, the situation is that the block-leader, that Hitlerite, I mean, not in a uniform but the Blockältester, was doing the checking. And, he’s coming up to the cauldron. Blast, he spotted it and, ‘Verfluchten, who of you did that?’ There’s no one to own up. I’m saying, ‘Nein’, that one says ‘no’ too. And he threw it, a bandit. And thus he knew what he could expect, right? There are no clever ones there, everyone’s caring about rescuing himself. Me – myself, ’cause that’s what it was, but he was rescuing himself also. And, well? And he [= the Blockältester] was with, such a, metal poker. And, go slap him!… // Here, like… // Three times, I think. Or more perhaps. I any case, something, behind me, // there’s a boy saying, ‘Run away, or he’ll kill you.’ And, well, I clang on to, somehow, jumped out from under that cauldron, ’cause there was that Blockältester who was beating, the engineer, the cauldron in the middle, and me. And those in the quarantine, this was a compressed lump, sp one stood beside the other. Thus they were walking along, but it was slow-slow, not like you’d go out ←370 | 371→freely. That’s like in a ghetto. As you watch those images from the Warsaw Ghetto, this swarm of the Jews, like, that they walk one beside the other like lice. That same thing was there, on that quarantine. The lump was so compacted, that, wadded jacket [a colloquial saying used by R.S. as a light swearword]. In any case, well, I managed to break out.
This is one of the most emphatic and concrete close-ups in the whole account. Narrative threads are dominant over commentaries and generalisations, although the scene as a whole is constructed as an example of a typical situation. It was supposed to be a transgression of the ordinary inmate’s experience. It finally only reconfirmed his miserable situation, making him aware, in a painful way, of the tight limits of possible action. He had a narrow escape and thus possibly avoided a death, but got a heavy lashing all the same, and yet another brutal lesson of the in-camp rules. He received it not only from the block-leader who gave him a beating with a whip or poker, but also from another, apparently ‘regular’ inmate whose status is equal to his own. This other lesson was certainly more astonishing and, possibly, more important. When their common action – reporting for carrying the soup in order to win an extra portion – comes to a failure, each of them remains on his own and fights for his life on his own account: “There are no clever ones there, everyone’s caring about rescuing himself. Me – myself, ’cause that’s what it was, but he was rescuing himself also”. This struggle is perceived as completely authorised. These are the rules of the camp game, as it occurs – and the game involves the inmates too. This essential lesson is taken at an important moment, at the very beginning of Roman’s stay in the camp. It has embedded him even stronger in his role of ordinary Häftling, for whom the camp experience is an incessant struggle for survival.
This dense reminiscence also mentions Jews, though there might have actually been none where the events reported on took place. Jews are evoked just to make more vivid the image of the crowd of prisoners on quarantine, the group into which the narrator attempts to get through as he escapes the block-leader’s lashes. My Interviewee does not bother himself to describe the crowd; he finds it much easier to compare it with the image he had solidified in his head.
This imagined crowd of Warsaw Jews is actually built of various images. There are images from the ghetto Roman accidentally watched when, as a teenage boy, he travelled by tramway to Koło district to see his elder brother. The tram line he used was set through the enclosed Jewish quarter area:
I can remember, I was in Leszno St. I was not in the ghetto itself but could see those Jews in front of the entrance gate, on my way to Koło from Marymont. I so travelled, then I was on my way: Leszno St., to Młynarska St., and along Młynarska, to Obozowa St. That is, I was going through the ghetto. … And it’s just that I saw that entrance gate, and Jewesses were there, and Jews, with those armbands. I could see the Jews on their way to work, and how they were beaten. Jews were beaten by Jews. Well, I saw it.←371 | 372→
The images seen through the windows of a tram going along the street of the ghetto, and so remembered, seemed to the Interviewee the most similar to those he saw at a very close distance when later at the camp, and of which he was part. But the position of a viewer – a passenger in a tram – is completely different from the one of actor/observer, a prisoner. The passenger was mostly shocked by seeing Jews being ‘beaten by Jews’. He utters this sentence with quite an emphasis, as if it confirmed some important but never directly formulated argument – one that is not only confirmed by the experiences of those travels by tram through the Warsaw Ghetto. It is derived from other data as well; moreover, Roman is supported to this end by his wife who joins our talk at this very moment, believing that she has a very important thing to add: “You know what, this was different, when I now have read The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman, then, what’s it that was going on there. That Jewish police were worse for the Jews than the German police”. As it thus appears, The Pianist, or rather, its selective interpretation, may excellently serve the reinforcement of stereotypes, giving evidence to the solidified conviction whereby the Jews are partly to blame for their lot.
The Jewish thread triggers emotion in my Interviewee (and his wife). At this point of his report, the emotion prevents him from observing that not only some Jews beat the other Jews but also some inmates beat the other inmates. Roman has just mentioned his getting beaten by a block-leader, i.e. one of the functional prisoners. The similarities of the Mauthausen Häftlings and Warsaw-Ghetto Jews being driven to labour are thus more than external. More important than this or that group resembling a swarm or lice (comparing Jews to lice is a direct reference to the Nazi propaganda language) is perhaps the fact that human interactions are getting organised along the same patterns in both situations; there are some Jews, Poles, inmates who, anointed by SS-men, lash the other Jews, Poles, inmates. It is upon this mechanism that a social operation of the totalitarian institution is founded. While Roman is capable of perfectly recognising this mechanism at a number of moments, now he is deceived by a stereotype or prejudices.
It is rather easy to find convicting evidence against someone who is not liked. For Poles, Jews often tend to be the disliked ‘other’. This is regretfully true also with some former Polish kacet inmates, among whom there are eyewitnesses to the annihilation of Jewish people.
The intervention of Roman’s wife has not ended at reinforcing the stereotypes she and her husband shared and sustained together. My presence there has already caused impatience but makes the woman very curious too. It is a completely new situation for her. She is now watching her husband in a before-unknown role of autobiography teller. The meeting has been lasting long and her husband is continuously telling a story, a thing he has never done like this. She can see (or hear) the story he is telling is of importance and she would like it to reach the others. The audience she would have in mind is not some abstract ‘others’ like the researchers using oral history archives but the very specific individuals, of importance to her: her own grandchildren. Their grandfather could give them an unusual lesson (although he is not quite sure about it himself). Once she learns that she will later ←372 | 373→receive a copy of this recording, my presence grows even more accepted; her earlier impatience has instantly disappeared. A short exchange between Roman and his wife and me is but a small fragment of this interaction. It is worth quoting to more efficiently report on the ambience of this specific situation, which forms part of the interview anyway. All the more than the like situations have appeared during many other meetings too:
[RS’s wife:] Are you tormenting the gentleman still so?
[RS:] Nearly finished.
[Wife:] Pity the grandkids are not around here, they could’ve heard a little.
[RS:] Ah, you’re kidding.
[PF:] I can send you [a copy of] the recording over later on…
[Wife:] That’d be a good idea indeed.
Let us meanwhile be back, together with my Interviewee, with the narrative images concerning his term at the camp. Entering that space also meant meeting senior inmates. For many prisoners of the Warsaw transport that was a turning point in their camp careers – unlike Roman who did not meet his biographical carer at first. He was not chosen by anybody, and thus this thread did not appear point-blank in the first part of our meeting. Inspired by my question, he evokes it now, talking at some length about yet another dimension of his experience of that very moment:
[PF:] I would still be interested what the senior inmates’ response was. For in Mauthausen, there were Poles, weren’t they, who had been serving their terms for three, or four, years. How did they react to those younger prisoners who were brought along in [the aftermath of] the Uprising? Helping them? Could they be any helpful at all?
[RS:] That’s what they couldn’t very much do, helping. But, visible was a positive, like… // Compassion, sort of, positive compassion. That they’re so young and all the same go get slaughtered. I mean, [there was] compassion of this kind. That they didn’t manage to survive. They’re going… // Meaning, their position has as if been strengthened a little, that it’s not only us to perish but there are those coming over who in some sort of the way, you wouldn’t know how, incomprehensibly for them, have found themselves in that ‘convictory’. But it was like, you cannot say they got glad at seeing us; rather, it depressed us.
Thus, he has extended his own helplessness and his own hopeless position to the senior prisoners. Roman tries to recognise their thoughts and feelings, look at himself in the mirror of their eyes. It is upon this recognition that he builds his conviction that those ones are helpless as well, and there is nothing they can do for him. The only thing they can muster up is ‘positive’ compassion and pensiveness over the lot of the young Varsovians who have joined their ‘convictory’. They should not be blamed for the passive attitude: what can they do (and what for), at all, if they are going to ‘get slaughtered’ as well?
This image is a good example of how the experienced of the world by an individual may inform the interpretation of the world as experienced by the others; ←373 | 374→and, how one’s own experience gets extended to the other people’s experience. As we already know, this is not the only image of welcome by the senior Häftlings that the numerous camp mates have preserved in their memory. This is true for those who had succeeded a little315 as well as for those who, like Roman, did not come across a carer or protector in the camp – or perhaps, no carer looked to finding them.316
My Interviewee’s experiences from his first weeks in the camp have lasted in his memory in numerous reminiscences. They become animated only in the second or third hour of the interview, in answers given to the questions and also on the occasions of these questions and digressions alongside the replies. Although chaotically evoked, when juxtaposed one beside the other, they compose a coherent image of those first experiences – a picture of affright, helplessness, and eyewitnessing the cruelties. The latter aspect was paralysing in a special way.
And I saw some S[S] -man suffocating one Häftling in that Appellplatz at Mauthausen. There’s the main gate, here’s the Waschraum, the mikvah. And, there was one of the free blocks going, that was a privileged lad, that was not a regular one, like us, ordinary Häftlings that came over from the Rising. That was the lad who certainly had been serving his term for a few years and he enjoyed a good reputation, had a profession, and so on. A tailor, perhaps, or maybe a shoemaker, or something, maybe. He served the S[S]-men and the Germans respected him. But it was precisely that one that the S[S]-man had in his sights, which I could see with my own eyes. And how do I know it? Because we were on our way back with those cauldrons, I think, from there, from those … [unclear]. And, we’re watching what’s going on. The S[S]-man ←374 | 375→was strangling the Häftling, that one from the free barracks. He was strangling him in the way that he held him, held him, till that one fell down. And says that one, ‘Aufstehen!’. And we’re walking, like that, and looking, right? Everyone’s looking in a way so that the S[S]-man wouldn’t see him, shit, for if he called him… And the guy’s stood up again, reports himself, such was the law, you had to put your cap off before the S[S]-man. And that one’s strangling him again. And so he does again and again. He must’ve, I think, strangled him up, ’cause it is impossible he would’ve given him free rein somehow.
This reminiscence ‘fits’ the earlier image of senior inmates – older and with longer camp seniority. No surprise it has so well settled in the narrator’s memory. It also confirms the generalised observation that those ones also ‘go to their death’ and so are of no use. If a prominent inmate, service provider to the SS-men, is perishing in a blink before the eyes of young inexperienced men, they may expect literally anything. It could be, after all, that the execution he now describes was an element of the camp’s socio-technology – a spectacle meant, in the first place, to be awesome and paralysing. If this was the case, the goal was fully achieved.
The evocation of that spectacle refreshes – in a manner that astonishes the narrator himself – another scene, which took place a few months later in the Wien-Mödling subcamp. Rather than being a viewer, Roman becomes one of the main actors:
And why am I saying this? The association has just come to my mind. My own case. There’s the following situation: from Schwechat I came to Mödling by a lorry. And we went into the camp, that barrack camp, onto that Appellplatz and so on, and there they told me to go to the manor [rewir], the admission room. And there was I for some time; at last, I was referred to that Arbeitslager, the subcamp Kommando. And there is… It’s the early hours. I’m going out of that manor on my own, it’s pretty empty around, ’cause everybody is at work, there’s no one in the camp, at the yard. But there’s the Rapportführer coming, with a dog. From where the entrance gate is, to the manor. And I’m going out of that manor, and there’s only: me and the Rapportführer, that is, the highest-ranking guy in office there. The Führer, the Rapportführer with that dog. And, sir, what’s going on? It’s all with me there, I have to pee, have to relieve myself, have to do everything. I’m not even sure if I didn’t pee into the pants. But there’s that one, the Rapportführer, how should I behave? Me, as only I spotted him, then I took off my cap, and thus: one, two, three, and I’m looking at him. Whatever strength had I in me, maybe there was not so much of a strength, but I did strike it. And so I’m looking at him. Well, it must’ve been all right, it seems, ’cause, goddamn [orig., ‘oh jacket’], he only could release the dog. I could see him strangle the Jew. Well, for the Jew was also being strangled by an S[S] -man in the quarry, down there. Then, he wouldn’t be willing to do the strangling ever more, then he released the dog. The dog started, you know… Oh good gracious me. And I just compared myself against that, goddamn bloody thing [orig., ‘oh wadded jacket’]. And that hound, was, such a, Alsatian or, whatever, German sheepdog. Alsatians, great ones. For, once he released it toward him… And, fortunately, gave it no command. He gave it no command, and ←375 | 376→I marched past. And I was still walking like that, all the time, till he perished from my sight. I didn’t look back at all then. For I’m saying, fuck’d thing, he’d call me, and, the ‘cups’ again.
What is it that causes the tangle of the reminiscence of an old prisoner tormented to death, which is eye-witnessed by a crowd of young men, and this last described situation? The reason is, probably, that both have resided in his memory as direct, face-to-face contact with an SS-man. For Roman, as well as for a plenty of inmates sharing the situation with him, similarly positioned in the camp’s hierarchy of authority and subjection, the SS-man is a scaring, distant, and dismal figure. Not a figure even – this would have been too complex; an individual, rather, reduced to inflicting death, pain, cruelty, one that focuses all the most ferocious traits. The prospect of approaching this individual, or even going past each other along the camp alley, triggered enormous dismay, activated the blackest of demons and the most horrid images, an abundance of which had been produced by the earlier camp experience. Roman’s experience was no different in this respect: he was, after all, a spectator of meetings of this kind. All of a sudden, one more image from the quarry was activated: it was there that he had seen a big killer dog which bit a Jew to death.
Still today, so many years after that meeting, its reminiscence triggers strong emotion – as immediately graspable in the rhythm and pace of the story being told, in the strength and intonation of the voice: as if something of that enormous tension reappeared. Such one-to-one meeting is part of experience of so few surviving prisoners. If appearing, they are usually constructed in a pretty similar way.317 These images are so different from those evoked by the few privileged inmates ←376 | 377→who entered into real social face-to-face interactions with exponents of the camp authority! – even if such interactions were rudimentary and instantaneous.318
Much more frequent than such individual experiences have been the collective ones, especially for ordinary prisoners such as this Interviewee, engulfed, carried away and floated by the rapid and destructive camp current; those who did not have enough luck, strength and skill to withstand it or gain at least a minimal influence on the direction and speed with which they are drifting downstream. Until the end of his inmate term, Roman Strój would not even gain a control of this kind. Here goes another scene from the Wien-Mödling camp – which means, from one of the last months of his kacet period:
And what the Germans did to brighten the time for them. The SS-men. With the hands of our kapos, Häftlings. The kapos were just like we were, only that there was [= they were] jacks-in-office doled out the German wages. The Germans appointed him: ‘Hans, you will be the one, Ivan, you will be the one, and you will do the battering.’ Those SS-men [once] had a few, somehow, and made themselves a circus. So, as they made a ‘fitness trail’… That means, there’s the barrack, there’s the door, and there, where there’s empty space, the kapos are standing on the one and on the other side, with the, like, various things. The rubbers [i.e. whips], or flails, of a sort, or what. And now, everyone’s running through, the whole personnel they had appointed there had to run through those kapos. That was, exactly, on that Arbeitskommando in Mödling. And, we’re running. And they’re battering. Lashing all the time. Those are running, and I also am in that mob, and am running. And am saying, goddamn [‘oh ←377 | 378→jacket’], how to avoid these blows there. And somehow did I succeed, that I made a lower motion than the neighbour on my left. That is, he was my shield, for I hid lower. And I don’t know if he spanked him or not. In any case, I somehow leaped out unharmed, and there on, you’d relax. … Eh you, goddamn bloody thing [orig., ‘wadded jacket’], that’s what it was like. [laughs] Democracy was there. That, once they battered, they did batter, there’s no wizardry.
This is yet another scene where prisoners are beating other prisoners – inspired by their overseers and to the delight of SS-men who are ranked higher up in the camp’s prestige hierarchy (not axiologically but in terms of interaction319). Roman Strój perceives the battering kapos as incidental perpetrators of the social roles they have been allocated. He is one among those being lashed, and thus his perspective is bottom-up, as usual. He is part of the crowd, mass of anonymous mutes in that ‘circus’: part of the ‘mob’ that is ‘running’. The only thing he can afford when so ‘running’ through the whips is to crouch a little more than the one who is running right alongside him, so that other man could take on more blows, being a ‘shield’ for him for a moment. This only possible way to reduce the pain was obviously applied by others as well, which remarkably diminished the method’s efficiency; but before anything happened, he managed to happily end the run, ‘leap out unharmed’. Today, a vivid image still resides in the memory; a large distance toward the occurrence enables the narrator to integrate it into his autobiography. The belief has also remained about the specific camp equality, which he now calls ‘democracy’. This equality or democracy could mean a community of fate, but this is a euphemism: there was no community in that situation. Rather than that, levelling-down the pariahs of a totalitarian institution was the case – so ingenious that each of those ‘running in the mob’, avoiding blows on his back, increased the number of blows appearing on the backs of the others, and did not even have time to be concerned about making of them a human shield for himself.
The thread of camp hospital appeared in the first section of Roman’s account. He went there owing to phlegmon, a typical prisoner illness. The ‘manor’ turned out to be a rescue site for him320: having wheedled it from a Polish doctor to leave ←378 | 379→him there, he eventually avoided transportation to a Mauthausen gas chamber (“And he helped me. Because, if not for him, then… … I would’ve gone already then.”). However, this same ‘manor’ was, for many, a place of their tragic death.321 This closeness of death – just for the asking – when you were dying and when the others were dying, or had already died on the hospital pallet, was also an experience characteristic to ordinary Häftlings such as my Interviewee.
[RS:] They were giving some medicines, but were doing it no more for you to get healed but they were making their experiments on the humans. And there was a doctor, like, on the ‘manor’, a German, Hitlerite, who ordered to get exercise, looked at the heart rate, looked at this, looked at that.
[PF:] And, to you also, did they … ?
[RS:] I got it too. I also got [it], I got the split-jumps when he came in, and then that pulse, he looked what the heart rate was, and so on. But some people could not stand these procedures. So, that was nothing of a treatment to get healed, but just a treatment for you to peg out. Just in this way. And theoretically, all was OK. For example, my colleague, a lad also from the Warsaw Uprising, a mate. // You can say he was a colleague, for we made friends within a couple of days. ’Cause I was showing him around, this, that, for his legs were swelling … . And he kept on saying he had to survive, for he had a girlfriend and so forth, he got engaged to her in the Warsaw Uprising… … Well, then, they gave him a bodkin, the ordinary way, the… the…
[PF:] The fix.
[RS:] The fix. And today [i.e. one day] I talked with him normally, and tomorrow [= the following day], he was dead. And the reason is? For, if they were willing to cure him, they would cure him, rather than giving him a bodkin. And the bodkin was given for him to be finished off. For he had his legs swelling. Well, then, they didn’t want to do the operation things, there was no way at all to do any operations there. Not at all. That was, like, smoke-and-mirrors, load of crap. The little manor thing. …
For instance, there died, at my place… // I had my bed on the right-hand side, and a German had his to the left. He was still alive yesterday. In the morning, I am looking, some sort of, // I’m calling him, like, or shaking, you were supposed to get up, let’s say, ‘Aufstehen!’, wash yourself, and so on. I had to move him. But he, he’s not getting up. Well, and? And he died in the night, during the night did he die. But ←379 | 380→the interesting thing was, how to approach it, that’s what I don’t know. His hands folded like this, and underneath the hands, a piece of bread. That’d make you mad, awesome thing. … Now, as you reminisce the moment… // Because then, it was regular. He lay, had his bread hidden, for he feared it might be stolen by someone. But now, if you look at this, that’s a horrible thing. Well, and a decent German, actually, was gone.
As it turns out, there, in the manor, where he was not driven, beaten, chased away from one place to the other all the time, Roman already started building a closer relationship with another inmate, breaking his isolation, and through such a bond, psychologically detaching himself from the surrounding and crushing camp hell. It even began seeming that he had almost managed to quit his loneliness, that they had managed to enter into ordinary interpersonal relations with another Varsovian he had met there – ‘make friends’, as ‘you can say’ – but this relationship gets immediately brutally broken by one of the usual camp methods of inflicting death: intracardiac phenol injection.
There is not a while of respite, to allow for considering the death of the would-be camp-mate friend, because there is another man dying at once beside him – a ‘decent German’, for a change. That one is privileged to pass away unaided, so to put it. Roman’s memory resuscitates its strongly rooted image of a dead prisoner lying on the plank-bed. ‘Regular’, in the camp conditions, watched incogitantly at that time, now, in a narrative retrospection, now takes in a deep significance the narrator cannot even recognise. The image all of a sudden becomes ‘awesome’, ‘mad’, triggers fear; not really the whole image but its fragments. The intercourse with a dead man: waking him up, poking, calling his name – is being reported fluently, incident-wise. This is all ordinary. The only thing out-of-the-ordinary is his folded hands and a piece of bread under them. Did he pray? Did he want to die with a piece of his bread in his hands? Did not manage to eat it up? The piece of bread was not stolen from him, although he did not need it any more – not as a thing to eat, at least? Or, perhaps, the Interviewee was so emaciated with hunger that he could not resist this portion of bread donated to him?322←380 | 381→
These questions, or maybe just some of them, are the tracks which would probably help us rationalise the impression of uncanniness this experience exerted on the narrator; yet, Mr Strój does not suggest us to follow this path. The image’s autobiographical meaning is not about a punctilious explanation of the meanings but, precisely, in its eeriness, imperviousness, and metaphysical quality.
The piece of bread kept in the folded hands of the dead man redirected our conversation to bread as a subject matter; this triggered yet another reminiscence. Following the many previous images, it is not much surprising that the reminiscence concerns a loss of one’s own portion of bread, rather than ‘arranging for’ (more literally, ‘organising’, as the inmate jargon had it) an extra portion.
The Russkis were particularly, in this, // to be fair, they were stealing like cobblers. Myself, in that Mödling, as I went to Mödling, then I had to report there at the block, and then I had that little trouble with that Rapportführer, with that dog. Well, and what now? That Ukrainian smashed me so badly, ’cause he was a kapo – the Ukrainian, he smashed me on the mug, and for nothing. For I only came to see him to report myself. I went over there by order, that I am referred from Schwechat, and to get reported there with you, with you sir, I don’t know what, whatever… And so he was smashing me, I don’t know how much. But this is unimportant. What’s important is that there resided, slept beside me on the plank-beds, two Russians, komsomoletses. One of them Ivan, the other, say, Grisha, whatever. There was nothing you could maintain; they’d pinch everything at once, in one night. For you would fall asleep, in any case. Whatever the case, that was a moment that you had to doze. Then, at that moment you dozed, and you held everything in your mitt, whatever was there, be it a piece of bread, or whatever it would be, right? Then, you held it in your mitt. That, and that, they took off. … Or, not only that. There were such who smoked cigarettes. Then, he’d take that ridge [i.e. slice of bread] and give it for cigarettes. Then, he’d give him three braves, or not braves, or, some sort of another… And that for the cigarettes. But, those Russians; they were such, oh… ?? They were artists. Well, artists – pickpockets, simply put. Although the Russian from Stalingrad recounted, I don’t know: ‘Ah’, says he, ‘they were all stealing things, unbelievable. The rich, everybody, lifting was done all around.’←381 | 382→
This is yet another hard camp lesson that an ordinary, inexperienced and young Häftling has been through. Yet, in Roman’s reminiscences, the loss of bread is not just a lesson – learned once again – on the ruthlessness of the camp rules, including relationships between ordinary inmates (though less lost than him). This lesson is also about the strength of national divisions within the inmate community. The bread is stolen not by a human from another human, by an inmate from another inmate: it is a Russki that steals it form a Pole – although the Pole was, plausibly, merely casual at that place.
Ivan and Grisha are not some specific prisoners, some multidimensional figures: in this reminiscence, they appear as human types – those of Russki thefts. They have their names, but we are not sure whether these are their real names or merely ascribed to them as typically Russian names. This is of no great importance, or is even neutral, to the Interviewee. Not the specific situation of his being robbed of a piece of bread is made the narrative’s focus: it is, instead, a generalising remark on Russians, those ‘stealing like cobblers’. There is not even a ghost of indignation at such behaviour resounding in Roman’s voice as he tells this story. It is hard to incriminate or even harbour a grievance against those specific thieves, once they merely represent their Russian culture. This is clearly expounded by a Russian from Stalingrad, after all. And this is why they command respect in the narrator, for they have developed mastery in their trade as thieves, capable of pinching everything at once, in one night’. He therefore calls them ‘artists’ – with a smile and without being cynical.
This fragment of the story features no powerful symbolisation, as opposed to the earlier image of the German who died in the ‘manor’. There is no idealising reflexion on downtrodden moral norms because of the camp, bestiality, or ruthless struggle for survival. Roman Strój does not tend to resort to the like humanistic interpretations. He simply reports on his ordinary camp experiences323, ←382 | 383→imperceptibly turning them into exemplifications of the more general rules, so that – forming part of the autobiography – they may reinforce the identity, confirm the self-definitions, and fit the stereotypes.
Russian inmates have proved particularly memorable in terms of my Interviewee’s camp experiences, but traces left in his memory by ‘ethnically other’ prisoners are also detectable. Their narrative image is all the more worth our attention. It is constructed as a reply is given to a completely different question – about the possibility of procuring extra food in the camp. Such casual close-up on the others, uninspired by any specific question, appears more spontaneous and thus, let it be assumed, more authentic:
[PF:] And you, did you ever manage to get an extra serving?
[RS:] Once, once, once… // Can’t remember exactly, but it seems to me that it was so once that he gave me there some sort of… The thing is, it was like that with it: A Russian is there, that one’s Belgian, that one, shit, some Dutchman, that one, again some kind of a Muselmann, and communication was a tough thing. But, ‘soup’, ‘soup’, ‘soup’, // Essen, Essen [German, ‘food’, ‘meal’ (PF’s note)], then they knew what’s on. …
There were few Belgians, there was a handful of Luxembourgians, then they [were] down, // the Frenchmen were down too, ’cause, well, they were few. It’d be awkward for a Frenchman to couple with a Pole, since he had a[nother] Frenchman [available]. There were some twenty of those Frenchmen, so they added up [sic]. And later, when they received the parcels, the French [got] seven kilos, and the Pole, four kilograms per four. What d’you think! The Yugoslavians had it even better than us. And we were sold a pup. One parcel per four [of us]. And the French, seven kilo. The ‘lords’, they were walking like, you know… And the Russians, nothing. For they were not members of the Red Cross, and only Comrade Stalin, to them… // But proud they were, damn it, then they too needed being… // They were saying, ‘Nechevo, nechevo [i.e. ‘don’t bother’], there’s Comrade Stalin’. And so they were rescuing themselves, while still at the camp. But they were stealing like stink. They cheated us, those kapos and those block-leaders, that, when… // For these parcels, as they were distributing, they were distributing them at the barrack. Well, and, at a distance from the window. For, if you were close to the window, then the Russkis, behind the windows on their hunkers, and when a parcel… // And, when some of the Russkis tipped the wink that the parcels are already there, then they, through the window, and, whoozz!, they forced out the door, // those windows … . And, well, they fled, and had their meal when still on their way [laughs]. Shit… … But the Italians were interesting. I don’t know how many parcels they actually received there, kilograms. But [they] were good men. One of those Italians says, ‘Roman, come up to me, I’m…’, somewhere, ‘from Palermo’, or something like, ‘you go with me’, says he, ‘the Italians, when they are on the way [back] to their state yet, then, once they take Italians, you call me, and I’ll take you by the hand, and you’ll go.’ That was, sort of, nice of him that he says, ‘And I’ve got everything, a rich man I am, you’ve got no idea about the way I live.’←383 | 384→
Anonymous, inaccessible, speaking some strange languages, whoever they might have been (“that one, shit, some …”), some of them already beyond any national category: the Muselmann-ed ones… Not much can be said of each of them separately. In that ‘Babel Tower’, it is so hard to win but an extra portion of soup single-handedly – although soup, in particular, is named with a word everyone around there understands: a German word, so that it can be picked up unmistakably also when uttered by a functional person. This attentiveness for soup was a survival strategy – especially for those prisoners who had no chance to gain much more than that. There were such, however, who would not have ever eaten the camp soup, scorning it, as they could afford to do so.
Seen from the position of a bereft, young Polish prisoner, the others around appear privileged – be it because they stuck together. Still when working at the factory, those aliens tended to form coherent groups, supporting one another within them. Later on, in the last weeks before the liberation, they receive better or larger parcels. During his second stay at Mauthausen, with thousands of prisoners of various nationalities awaiting the liberation, Roman is no more on his own: there, he is part of a large group of Polish prisoners. Yet he still has a sense of wrong, for ‘even the Yugoslavians’ received more than the Poles did. There are Russians too, receiving nothing, but they are tough, aren’t they; they believe in Stalin and this belief keeps them going – and besides, they are smarty-pants and thieves. There is, therefore, no doubt that it was us, the Poles, that they ‘were sold a pup’. This is how, through defining the differences between the ‘aliens’ and ‘us’, our own national identity strengthens.
The Italian mates are the only ones this Interviewee finds it uneasy to distance himself, and build an image of himself, as a Pole, in an opposition to this group. A happenstance was that one of those Italian prisoners persuaded Roman to go to his country, inviting him to his place. This only interactive episode suffices for recognising that Italians, all of them, at least those in the camp, were ‘interesting’ and ‘good men’. It even becomes irrelevant how much of the stuff they were receiving with Red Cross parcels on the eve of liberation; the parcels that, as memorised by inmates sharing the situation, gain enormous importance:
[PF:] And the prisoners, as they were receiving those parcels, did they swap [them]? Was there, some sort of, camp ‘[commodity] exchange’, or, every man for himself…?
[RS:] No, never, there’s nothing like an exchange, nothing of that sort. Everyone was holding this, and, just for him to keep it. Where could you hide it? That was supposed to be eaten up, quickly… And, there was nowhere to hid it, well, where’d you hide it then? There was nothing of a repository. …
There [= in the parcel] was, the following: butter was there, some canned fish – well, those American ones, in Poland we have [them] too now, some pâté, things like that. That was one kilogram altogether.
The distances and borderlines between us and them, those ‘ethnically other’ ones, would have certainly been redesigned, had fate been different, the only righteous one turning up to a Russian, or Frenchman, or Spaniard. In such a case, the content ←384 | 385→of parcels given to Italians could have quite gained in importance. Completely different constructions of ‘alien’ are found in the reminiscences of those former inmates who – having, most of them, spent several years in the camp and attained better-than-the-worst positions in the camp hierarchy – managed to develop in the course of their prisoner careers more ordinary human relations with the ethnically diverse inmates.324 Roman was not part of the group.
That one was the only parcel he ever received during his camp imprisonment. He would receive no letters. The lack of these two elements of camp experience, otherwise of key importance to many a prisoner, is striking in the accounts of prisoners from Warsaw and all those who ended up in the camp during the last months of its functioning. Apart from the few first months, of spring 1940, those months were the hardest to survive.
A few days’ quarantine at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the labour done at the quarries in Mauthausen, transport as part of the Jungkommando to Wien-Floridsdorf and right afterwards further up, to Wien-Schwechat, a vocational training there for an armament factory, falling ill and the ‘manor’, and the labour in the Wien-Mödling adits, the death march in April and one more stay at Mauthausen, the last few weeks before it was liberated: all these are external stages of Roman Strój’s camp path, as partly recorded in the documents. Yet, his autobiographical memory does not strictly stick to this order, going astray its own ways, resuming the threads of pre- and post-camp experiences. Sometimes, we manage to relate the images it evokes quite uneasily and after thorough consideration, in a joint effort. There are many absent details there which, as a general rule, tend to appear in narratives of former inmates. Has not the fifteen-year-old’s memory recorded them? Have they blanched in the later years, as they were of no importance to him? Have they receded, as they have not been recorded in stories told a multiple times? There is no conclusive answer.
Our conversation now continues along the lines of my attempted arranging, through more detailed inquiring, the scattered, dispersed, narratively non-concluded camp stories. I have attempted to reconstruct their elementary chronology, to ascribe the narrative images to a possibly specific place and definable time. This appears generally feasible, at the expense of much effort. Roman ←385 | 386→Strój leads me hastily through subsequent stages of his prisoner’s way, the one he made through Mauthausen and its subcamps. This shortcut considerably facilitates also a chronological and spatial arrangement of earlier images – the obvious condition being that one is in search of such a fact-based order. For those investigating into the history of (rather than a narrative on) the camp, and who might someday take interest in this story and read it in historical terms, such elementary factual order may probably be of essential importance.
Yet even these hard-fact and detail-related fragments of my Interviewee’s account, something quite opposite stands out: namely, how imprecise and ahistorical human memory at times tends to be; what effort it requires to cram chaotic episodes into the frame of a linear narrative. And, how imperfect the effect of such effort can be. My questions often lead the narrator’s memory toward the next loose images, which have not much to do with factual precision. Some of these close-ups seem quite familiar, like the picture of Spaniard, or Russians the thieves. Some are not just familiar but identical with the previous ones – like the onomatopoeic ‘buzzzzzz’, associated by the memory with a specific situation; it is, therefore, replayed every time the narrator constructs its reminiscence. There are some new images too: a Polish kapo (again, without generalising that Poles thrashed other Poles); a German inmate, former soldier, squeezed down to the very bottom of the camp hierarchy; etc.
We thus gain insight here into the very mechanism of remembering or recalling things, into the labour of memory – when the Interviewee concludes certain occurrences from certain others, unclear and blurred from somehow more distinct and dependable ones. Also, we can see how access has already been lost to certain images in the memory: attempts at regaining it end up in failure. Then, surrender comes: “hell knows, I don’t know”; whilst, in some other place, the narration gets suspended on the phrase: “But, what it was like, what was that…?”. Scholars who approach oral history accounts as an extra, complementary historical source, rather than a record of human awareness (in all good faith), will find all such instances of vagueness as diminishing the report’s value. As for myself, I find every single image my Interviewee constructs – including those blurred or defective ones – important and significant.
There are more such images in this account, also outside the fragments having been quoted. Some are complementary for the earlier stories; others appear for the first time. It would not be possible to have all of them evoked right now. There is no need, in fact – for, like many of those earlier analysed, these images are, as a general rule, (being) constructed from the same perspective – one of a lost, scared, lonely, frightened young Häftling from the Warsaw transport. Thus, they do not considerably contribute to the image of kacet’s social universe Roman Strój has built elsewhere, across his narrative.
This trait, shared by a number of accounts, shows how coherent the whole narration is, in both of its parts – including the second, and one with respect to the other. How is it possible, if we are revolving around chaotic images and pictures? Chaos appears with the sequences of the events being recollected, manifesting ←386 | 387→itself in incessant breakage of their chronologies, numerous digressions, marginal episodes, avalanching images. There is something important that is common to them: the point of observation from which they are (being) constructed. This is true for the moments Roman Strój evokes concrete situations, pieces of his personal camp experience, as well as when he develops generalisations, makes comments or expresses his opinions. All throughout can we hear a narration of a prisoner who constantly moves within the lower range of the camp, an inmate who dangerously approaches the ungraspable borderline of the condition described as ‘turning into a Muselmann’.325 Not just approaches but actually crosses it – as attested by his now-reactivated reminiscences of his stay at hospitals after the liberation:
There was a bloody load of those sicknesses, of various sorts I don’t really know now. But, yes: in Lohr on the Main, I also was in the hospital, in Schweinfurt I also was in the hospital. So, I was going from one hospital to the other, wherever I just found myself. That means, I was nearing the…
Because they didn’t recognise, everywhere, that I was a man. Meaning, a Muselmann, this, that, and so on. That means, I must’ve been so tremendously attenuated that I was breaking up. Well, it was all just about getting to a normal human figure. That was the point in that. And what were the complications there, well, that was the basic thing I talked about. And what were the other… Aha, a Nierenkrankheit [German, ‘nephropathy/kidney disease’], just a moment… I had something about the kidneys. Nierenkrankheit. It was in Regensburg, exactly there, in that hospital, among others – Nierenkranke [‘the nephritic’], and there was some other -kranke thing too. So, of those illnesses, there…
[PF:] And you applied there by yourself, from the camp, or was it that you were selected and transported from one place to the other?
No, it was that either I got to know, and reported at, such a, madam doctor, say, as if, to our… And I am from the camp, and this, and that, and that again. And she, based on this and the examination, which was maybe done there, I don’t even know, can’t remember if there was some examination done, or was it just, like, stethoscope thing. This is how it proceeded, that. Whereas, was it a case, there probably was one such case that I was transferred. That I got a referral, from Lohr, for instance, or to Lohr, from Würzburg, or, from Schweinfurt. From Schweinfurt, I think. It’s possible that in Schweinfurt, I had a direction to [i.e. was allocated a compulsory treatment in] Lohr on the Main. To that SS-men’s hospital there, with those kind and nice nuns. And this was one such case. … There was only a separate hospital on the beautiful river of Main. Lohr on the Main. A beautiful hospital, in a beauteous garden; a wonderful ←387 | 388→thing. And from there on, once the game of those hospitals ended, then I already got to Wetzlar, and to Gießen, and so forth…
A camp inmate thus turns into a patient, and from the standpoint of a lost, bewildered patient, he constructs a story on his first experiences while set free. A hospital building, examinations, medical procedures – all this sets the framework of this liberty. None of these are the narrator’s actions; on the contrary: again, like when in the camp, these actions are done to him, with respect to him. He is subject to them after being diagnosed as being a ‘non-human’, a Muselmann. In constructing this narrative image, Roman accepts this definition of himself, as imposed by the others, accepting it as the valid self-definition. Today, he knows that it helped him survive: no more in the camp but thereafter.
By now, we have learned quite a lot of Roman Strój’s experiences gained in the camp and in the period right before his camp term, of the memory of these experiences, and of the ways in which meaning is added to them and autobiographical narrative constructed based on them. It is not quite much that we have got to know so far about the pre-camp and post-camp paths that led to/from those experiences. My Interviewee was not talking a lot about them, almost neglecting them in the first section of the interview. Pieces of these paths have nonetheless appeared in our conversation. Let us now try and recognise the most important significances the narrator attaches to them in the context of his autobiographic story.
What characterises the images from the childhood years, both those from before the war and those from Warsaw under Occupation, is the reoccurring motif of poverty. This is the main solder of those experiences, and it is through it that the relationships in Roman’s family, the situation of his parents, brother, sisters, are perceived. Poverty penetrates the narrator’s entire social world; it is the starting point for this biography (and autobiography). Moreover, poverty is an important dimension of his identity: it was the pressure of poverty that drove his farmer parents to settle to Warsaw, and so Roman turned into a Varsovian, though born somewhere else. Roman’s place of residence was not the only thing brought about by poverty. Poverty and the process of tackling and overcoming it has contributed to the universe of his social experiences, the space of possible and available interactions, his social position, etc. No surprise, Roman revisits his poverty experience in his narrative several times:
[RS:] And, in Warsaw, [my father] was an employee, sort of, well, don’t know… // casual labour; how to name it, then? Jobless at all, and he had no profession. For he was a farmer. Then, you can only say, a farmer. A farmer who did casual labours in a town. Well, that’s how you can say it. … Also, my mother had no profession, and so, together… … Very hard. Very. And there was five of us, the brothers-and-sisters. … three sisters and the brother and me. That makes, five. The thing is, my brother was, fortunately, one of the eldest. Because the sister was the eldest, then was the brother, the second sister, the third sister, and me. And the situation was, like, that ←388 | 389→thanks to the fact that my brother had already taken a job, once they arrived in Warsaw, // because we were dispersed all over the country. To [i.e. some settled with] the family, one of us here, another there, another one there… that’s what it was like. And there were incredible scenes happening, better stay away of that. But later, that company all came together to Warsaw, the parents and that one, and the kids, and that… // And well, my brother was already employed, had a full-time job, that already was one-hundred and five zloty, plus a dwelling. He got a tied accommodation. … He was an employee, the regular way, in Koło, precisely, in that workers’ housing estate. He got a job as a stoker. And a company apartment. So we instantly had there, as I say, from hell to heaven. [laughs]
[PF:] And, was it that the whole family moved in there?
[RS:] Well, the whole family in that one flat, in that one room.
[PF:] Which is, the first brothers-and-sisters and the parents?
[RS:] Because that was a room plus a kitchen. And a bathroom. A bathroom, that means, just the WC. But that already was a WC, that was even a gas cooker. And, the ‘Stefan Żeromski’ workers’ housing estate, for the workmen. The lucky thing was, that room was big. It had, that room, just to be frank, twenty-something, four or six, [square] metres. So, you could locate yourself there. And, those seven people lived there.
[PF:] And before, the siblings were scattered across the family[’s places], right?
[RS:] Yes, yes, here, there, and there…
[PF:] And you had been born then already, and were with your parents? Because you were the youngest.
[RS:] Yes, I am the youngest.
[PF:] And in your school years, was it as poor at [your] home, or better a little?
[RS:] No, in my school [years], it was all the same thing. All was poverty. All was poverty, and I don’t want to speak of the other details, ’cause… // But such were the precepts of the pre-war Poland. there was no treatment with kid gloves, like today. Now, they’re fondling, there are strikes, and whatever else… // I don’t know, but I cannot suppose, I did not see anyone going on strike before the war. That was unthinkable at all, so it seems to me. Such things as a strike, that’s, at all… // And there were none in the communist time. In the communist years, that was a different cup of tea. They’d simply boss you, thrash and beat, and give you a good kicking, and throw you away to Siberia, end of story. But before the war, so it seems to me, it was simply unthinkable for something like to happen. …
[PF:] And when the war broke out, were you still going to an elementary school?
[RS:] When the war broke out, when the Warsaw Rising… // No, no, just a moment. During the peace time, until the year thirty-nine, I then had completed two grades of elementary school, I think. Then, the war and German occupation, in Obozowa Street. There’s a school in Elekcyjna street, and I frequented that Elekcyjna place. There I attended the third, fourth, probably, and fifth… And I left, when it was already so, already so bad… // Wait, did I still go to Koło right before the war? ’Cause it’s, yes, in Marymont, let it be one grade there. Later, in that Gostyńska Street, the second one – that’s two grades. But that was… // Then, I must’ve ←389 | 390→attended the Koło place still before the war. And, it was only… And later on still, a year, I think. In any case, I sorted out five grades during the occupation period all right. But later on, as I was sent by my parents to the countryside, for there was poverty, big one, and the occupation at all, five children at home, this, and that. Although the kids [were] grown up, big yet.
[PF:] And did your sisters study too? Did they work?
[RS:] No, they didn’t study, they worked yet. They worked, like, casually. They were without a profession too. And one was a needlewoman. Had a work, like, better one. And the rest, that’s, such, such… just as they caught [the opportunity]. And, why am I so resuming [it]? Because after my arrival from the occupation, I came from a family’s place, right before the Warsaw Rising. … My mum brought me along. Because at home, the situation was that I could return, in a sense. // Aha, because the schools, // when they send [you] to the countryside, I then could learn nothing in the country, could I, only I did there those rural works. But they wouldn’t send me to school. Due to this, my mother wanted to rescue me, so I shouldn’t lose the school, then she came to take me… // There was no more… // The father. // The father was no more there.
[PF:] Did he die during the war?
[RS:] He did.
[PF:] And did he die a natural death?
[RS:] He did. A death of some sort of disease. Either he had an ulcer, or something, I don’t know. In any case, once my mother came to fetch me there, in the countryside, she took me then in order for me to go to school. And grade six, I can remember, grade six I was admitted to, in Marymont. And at that time, it was so that you didn’t have to have your seven grades completed. Six grades was enough for you to go on. The interesting thing is that I had all those papers, somehow surviving. My mother must have saved them. For later on, when already after the war, past the camp, when I arrived in Poland, then, on the basis… // Aha, and there I completed, in that Wetzlar, the one-[year-]and-a-half of the gymnasium [i.e. junior high school], then on the basis of these papers and those mine ones from Wetzlar, I was admitted here for a gymnasium and a mechanical lyceum. In Traugutta [St.; corrects himself in the following sentence]. The Traugutt Park. And I already began…. // And I finished the gymnasium and lyceum. And I got a Mechanical Technician [qualification]. And that’s all I could do. [laughs]
The work done by his father, brother, and sisters, his ‘staying kept’ at his countryside family lodging, procurement of an apartment in a workers’ housing estate in Koło area, interrupted elementary-level education course: these are the main threads of this fragment of Roman’s autobiography. They are penetrated and combined with the whole family’s common grappling with poverty. It is poverty that overrides the experiences, of all sorts, from the life in the country under Occupation, in the occupied Warsaw, which was named for that time – by someone else – the ‘death paragraph’ city.326 Here, we would not learn a thing on this very subject. ←390 | 391→It is even difficult, also my Interviewee finds it hard, to settle which of the events he is evoking occurred before and which after September 1939. It is irrelevant for him, as long as not much changed after this date in terms of his primary experience. Continuity, or continuum, of poverty remains in the foreground. This story is ingrained in experiencing poverty, rather than in the history.
The poverty of his own family is not seen as a unique, unfair situation which would make them distinguishable in any way. On the contrary: it is a normal manifestation of “the precepts of the pre-war Poland”. His family was quite lucky anyway: his brother got a job as a stoker and a flat in a housing estate ‘for the workmen’. This allowed for drawing his parents and siblings “from hell to heaven”, for gaining a foothold in Warsaw – not yet getting strongly anchored, though, as Roman Strój was at times sent to his family’s countryside place not only to spend his holiday there.
That they had no firm ground under their feet is also, possibly, betrayed by the comment on strike. Roman’s brother and father were both peons; what is more, the father only did casual work. This kind of employment must have been unreliable, anyone of them could lose his job overnight. The same was true for the sisters. On the other hand, every day of labour was indispensable to support the family. What fell to their lot, then, was to care about the work they had got with much difficulty, and to do everything so as not to lose it. Going on strike was unconceivable. Roman internalises such assessment of the situation – possibly, the one that was prevalent at his home – and generalises it by extending it to the situation of workers across the country. He also extends it to the post-war years, ‘the communist time’, although he emphasises the differences in the consequences caused by a strike offence of the sort. No matter the historical facts that could be contraposed to such generalisations. The important thing is that they add meaning to a biographical experience in which going on strike was a privilege of the workers’ elite, inaccessible to ordinary workers.
This close-up on the situation of his family before the war and during the Occupation is permeated by submissiveness – acceptance of one’s fortune, hard labour, necessity to discontinue the education, poverty… This is the way the world goes, and one has to accept it.
The possibility of getting educated with a decent Polish gymnasium, in Wetzlar, and the Warsaw follow-up, crowned with a secondary technical education degree, is a considerable success of his life. It is a social advancement, the maximum of what he managed to achieve – or, in the Interviewee’s own perspective, “that’s all I could do”.
Were it not for the concentration camp, with the vocational training and factory work episode, and reentering the role of school student when already in a transit camp, the advancement could have not ever occurred. And, Roman would probably not have been willing to enter this role, had he been a little older and healthier at the liberation, as were some of his camp mates whose social (and economic) situation was similar. Soon after they returned, they were not strong or intellectually fit enough to learn; shortly after that, they had to work to provide for themselves.←391 | 392→
Stories on clandestine teaching or genuine lessons held under false but official and allowed names, are well known to us: secret courses and lessons, devotion and courage of teachers, and how illegal students were determined to learn and study. They appear in a number of memories, are featured in school history textbooks, and have got excellently solidified in Polish collective memory. However, one would not find such comforting images in Roman Strój’s narrative. It is not because he was too small then to share this experience: various forms of Polish secret teaching behind the German facade were applied from higher grades of primary school upwards.327 The reason was, apparently, Roman’s ‘broken’ course of education: he would often go from one school to another, and discontinue his learning by often being forced to travel to the countryside. Studying or learning is not placed at the story’s centre, and probably was not his central experience. It would not have at all been possible. Poverty, and concern about not getting overcome by it, was the actual focus. The parents found it tough to think about having their kids educated; or, in case they gave thought to it, they could do very little. After all, Roman recalls his mother’s determination: when his father died, she took the son from the village in order to have him join the last, sixth, grade of primary school. This must have cost her considerable effort.
My Interviewee’s memory has not preserved much from the experiences of school education in the occupied Warsaw; there is, however, one pronounced image remaining. Since it does not reminisce a camouflaged lesson of Polish, history, or geography, it seems even more worth of being quoted now:
[RS:] I can remember it, in that Elekcyjna place, in the elementary school, everything there was just normal, such as… The point is, the German language had entered yet. I was grade four there, I should think, and the German language was compulsory then. And the lecturer, I don’t know, a Pole, or… // But in any case, the German language was there already. And besides, well …? // There, in grade six, I… // Because I completed grade six before the Warsaw Rising … . We then had a Religious Instruction and Singing man [i.e. teacher]. He was a Hitlerite, he normally wore that Hakenkreuz, but a civilian he was.
[PF:] A Volksdeutsch, or a German?
[RS:] In fact, a Volksdeutsch-and-German, sort of, damn it. And he was mad about religion. But a Hitlerite he was.
[PF:] And later, he taught you Religious Education, right?
[RS:] He taught me Religious Education… He didn’t teach me Singing, for he was a Singing professor, in grade six, here in Marymont, in Marii-Kazimiery St. And everybody was startled that the two could be [combined] together…
When still in the camp, in Mauthausen was I, mind you, I was saying my prayers so much. For praying was the only chance to survive. One of the very few chances. And I thank God the Lord, and particularly Our Lady, that I have ←392 | 393→survived. … And the thing is that when I was at Mauthausen, and not only, in that Abeitskommando, then, thanks to his singings, his religious singing instruction… // Because, he, only religious songs, and no other… [laughs] Well, ’cause you could move in there. It was plausible that he was a Hitlerite, and hence, At the cross her station keeping Stood the mournful Mother weeping, Faithful cross, etc., that had nothing to do with some anti-Hitlerian custom. That was all with God the Lord or with Our Lady. There, it was allowed. ‘You can!’, you were told. And thanks to it, me, // you can say, that gave me a real lot. Because I was experiencing this my own way, and the other maters could not stand it psychically and psychologically, when only it was. In a culinary manner too, ’cause they ate bones with veins, and that was not allowed. They drank the blood, and so on. Well, such was the situation.
Of the several years of his school education, only this lesson appeared memorable; for Roman, the lesson proved pretty unique. Not just because it was taken by a particular teacher who taught Religious Instruction and (religious) Singing, simultaneously overextending ‘Nazi’ pedagogic rules; even more so because he considers those lessons the most important ones he has ever been through. The prayers he was taught at that moment helped him survive the camp, perhaps becoming crucial to his survival. Singing and reciting them in the camp, he believed they were reaching their destination. Addressing the recipients, he took his mind, even if for a while, off the surrounding hell of the kacet reality. And, he never quit his hope that he would be saved till liberation comes. A pariah in the camp’s social world, particularly in that moment of its existence, he could not and was not capable of undertaking more to improve his position or situation. That was his only weapon. Its uniqueness helps sharpen contours of the reminiscence, and adds the camp prayer – and, consequently, the belief in God – a profound autobiographical meaning. It also causes that strong emotion accompanies this particular fragment of the narration.
Following the path of pre-camp experiences, constitutive as they were for the Interviewee’s identity and solidified in his memory, we have found ourselves within the camp space again. We have been led into it along the thread of biographical narration; but let us get out of this labyrinth, in our continued search for Roman’s biographical experiences from his post-camp period. The task is not easy. Roman is not quite inclined to talk about those ‘empty’, regular years. He finds it hard to believe that this ordinariness and lack of special events is of interest to me, and is worth talking a story about. Or maybe, rather than being unconvinced, he cannot quite do it.
A relatively easy move is to be back for a while with the Wetzlar transit camp and the biographical crossroads – the decision of returning to Poland, and the return itself. These are the turning points in this biography, perhaps the most important ones, beside the camp experience. It is not surprising that the memory, which is now working so intensively, resumes those experiences, finding new access to episodes that have only been touched upon before. We can now learn a ←393 | 394→number of factual details about the camp, the conditions prevalent therein, social relationships, etc. – as well as his episode as a student at the Polish gymnasium.
[RS:] But a majority, there, were, those professors [in Wetlzar – PF’s note], were AK-men, contemporaneously AK-men. And they set as a goal for themselves to create a gymnasium and a lyceum, because such were their qualifications. And the UNRRA, the camp one, chimed in: all right, go do it. … So, it was like this: three Polish women professors, of a really great standard, but great patriots [they were] too, oh good gosh…
[PF:] So, was it that regular lessons were held there?
[RS:] Normal lessons, like any school, all that, registers being kept. All that with chicanery, or even more so, for they, those, were demanding. Those were not just ladies, like, blah-blah tiny-little-things. …
And so, those also were German, former German barracks. And it was made in the way, the rooms were four-, [or] two-bed, either ground-floor or two-storied. But, no, // it was bearable there, you wouldn’t say. And, the alimentation was wonderful already, American. … The UNRRA, all was UNRRA, and UNRRA once again. So, the feeding was super. Whatever was back there [i.e. in the (most recent) past], you cannot compare it at all. That’s, at all, a real far cry.
A reminiscence of one tough-to-make decision reappears now with greater severity. New contexts of the moment are appearing – firstly, poverty experienced in Poland before his imprisonment. Roman’s camp period was one when poverty he had experienced as typical, daily and domestic was suspended. Now, poverty is back, in front of his eyes, frightening away. This comes as an extremely rare reminiscence of that particular biographic moment: so scarce are the accounts, not to say written-down memoirs, of almost-excluded people ranked low in the social hierarchy, those for whom want a thoroughly fundamental experience of their youth years, or perhaps even their whole lives. Such people usually do not tend to write books of memoirs, get interviewed, or have their biographical accounts recorded. It is harder to get through to them, to listen to them and record the words they utter. Thus, their specific experience easily perishes, remaining out of sight.
A lot [of people] were returning to Poland. But those who had a connection with the Germans, in some sort of positive way… // If there was a Pole working, say, at a baor’s [= ‘Bauer’, a German farmer employing coerced labourers] and was treated well by the baor, then he’d prefer to stay there, and wouldn’t return to Poland. …
But I’ve once mentioned about the fact that many a Pole have remained because they fared well. As he compared the Polish conditions in which he lived, then, well, that’s a far cry. Then, there he was, should I know who? And this is exactly why those Poles were remaining, for the economic and cultural reasons, and in any other respect too. There was such a train, electric one, like the one in this place, well, the electric one that goes to Podkowa-Leśna [a locality near Warsaw; today, part of Warsaw Agglomeration]. A same one is from Mannheim to Heidelberg. And I used that train too, ’cause I went to a doctor, the eye problem. And, you know, sir, I’m meeting two ←394 | 395→Poles in the compartment. And, [there’s] a discussion between them, they didn’t know I also was a… // that I was on my way back from that… // And there, there was, such a, German woman sittin’, a nice girl, but this is not the point… // The point is, the way they behaved. They said in this way: ‘We’re not going to Poland. For there’s poverty in Poland.’ Their background was, precisely, some poor… // ‘Poverty, and we’re not willing to return to that poverty. We’re staying here.’ Well, and that’s enough. For there’s poverty in Poland. That means, he, as he lived before the war, // for those were the lads who were then about, let’s say, thirty, and this means, lived before the war – meaning, he must’ve [lived] there in, like, a poverty. Perhaps there were five of them at home, one cow or one goat. And, such [were] the conditions. Because we know, don’t we, that this is what was in our villagery [sic] houses, that half the house was a cowshed and the other half, a hut. And you entered it, normally, from the porch, here was the entrance hall, a cow and hogs there, and there were you. Those were the conditions you lived in. When I still was on [= during] the occupation, at that uncle’s, then he had the same situation. That the cows were on the left-hand side, and on the right-hand side, us.
This picture from a train trip tells us more of Roman’s apprehensions than about the Polish passengers he came across on his way. It is not their but his own poverty that we find evoked at this moment: five brothers and sisters at home, a home that is shared fifty-fifty with cattle – identical to the one he visited at his uncle’s family.
While retaining in his memory his own experiences from his stay in the countryside, he extends them to the overall situation in Poland. The misery of this situation is reinforced in contrast with the farmsteads of German famers which he probably saw through the train’s window and knew from the stories told by Polish coerced farm labourers. He probably met some of them in the transit camp. Based on this fragmentary knowledge, the narrator constructs an idealised and simplified image of ‘baor conditions’. For a prisoner who had just, and quite luckily, been released, and who bore a wealth of pre-war experiences of such a sort, these conditions could indeed have seemed to be a ‘heaven’, when juxtaposed with the camp ‘earth’ he had just left. It is this same contrast that he builds the image of farmhand on: a whizz-kid who was given an admission ticket to another, better world. Between his own experience and the imagined experience of the other there occurs a divide, abysmal gap, upon which his own identity as a kacet-man is reinforced. The experiences of labour ‘at a baor’s’ – the less positive ones, similar to his own – are perishing.328←395 | 396→
The recollection of his return to Poland and of experiencing the Polish poverty is also founded on an opposition: this time, against each of those 300,000 Poles who remained in Germany after the war (this number is, emotionally, evoked again). It is preceded by a mention of his way back to the homeland:
Well, you have to admit that the UB [= Security Office, the Polish communist secret police] were trailing you everywhere. And there, the Jews [unclear], I don’t know why. I have no antipathies, of any sort, whatever, but Jews appeared everywhere. In that Dziedzice, that major or captain, he was a Jew. And as the Jews travelled with us, for there were Jews travelling with us too – Poles, but Jews [i.e. of Jewish background]… They were carrying some leather, a leather, sort of, to make boots with, and various things; a whole carriage. Then, he talked to them, rather, at all. And they were brazen enough to tell us the same thing we were once told by [? ….], that now, it’s us to rule here, not you. So… // And so, that major heard this too, and, mum’s the word. So, you could clearly see there was something’s not quite right. Well, but…
But all was held in rather bearable conditions, acceptable. Well, what should you say; there was the war, the war-over, right? A mess unearthly, all that. So, I shouldn’t be complaining about anything, You cannot, well, you cannot, in those conditions. What’s it that you’re after? Being brought back in a sedan chair?
My Interviewee’s memory has not retained too many details of that journey. They must have appeared not quite essential. The significance of that experience is contained within the objectivising generalisation: it was ‘acceptable’ and you cannot complain – it would not be fair for you to do so, as all this took place ←396 | 397→shortly after the war. This rationalisation lowers the level of expectation, which is set rather low anyway. Once again we find Roman accept his destiny that fell to his lot. Those without such humility have a different memory of that route. Made in similar conditions, their trip is ‘inacceptable’, is a scandal of history.
More important than this generalisation is the only episode Roman has just evoked. What is it that made this particular detail stand, out of the whole journey? It might be the fact that it is excellently of use in confirming his own conceptions, opinions, and stereotypes adhered-to. My Interviewee has again caught Jews red-handed, discerning their impudence: they have ganged up on the Poles, want to rule them, made a killing – now they are carrying a whole carriage of leather to make boots and various other things of… And, there is a plenty of them everywhere. They, ‘Poles, but Jews’, are crowding in here, crushing into our place – the one of simply-the-Poles, pure Poles. It is as if they were not returning to their places and their country, but invading and occupying our country. It is clear that something is going on wrong here, but it is hard to completely explain. Something is wrong with the Jews, obviously, not with the observer narrator. The latter remarks at the very beginning, just in case, that everything is all right with him, he is an unprejudiced and objective man, in any case; but still before this remark is made, we can learn that there were Jews ‘everywhere’ within the UB secret police that were trailing you everywhere. Both recollections merge into one, for their meaning is the same.
Let us now move to this Interviewee’s other post-war experiences. In order to better understand his situation after he was back in Poland, the history of his family is worth recalling. Whilst not a piece of memory of Roman’s own experience, this knowledge is part of his autobiography:
And we were in Marymont during the occupation. … Marymont was burnt up after the Uprising. These were barracks there, those were wooden houses, mind you. … All that Marymont which presently is there is, after all, completely dissimilar to the one that was. Because it was, wasn’t it, Marii-Kazimiery was a wooden street [i.e. with wooden houses]. So, what was there? As the Uprising was coming to an end, then, everybody [unclear]. And my sisters, and our mom too, were included in that general pool for the transportation. But the luck wanted them to be carried away to a countryside, to Kielce region somewhere. And they lived at some villagers’ place there. And since that one sister, Stefa, knew the tailoring, the dressmaking, then, well, the sewing at once there. And they were there, somehow, the three of them. One of these sisters was somewhere, damn it, now it’s hard for me to say… // that youngest one. Exactly, that’s what I don’t know. For Bronia, Stefa [diminutives of the Christian names Bronisława and Stefania, resp. (Transl. note)] and my mother were somewhere in that Kielce region. But where that one was? Somewhere, perhaps, with the family, in Kielce region somewhere there, too. … In any case, after the war, // after the Warsaw Uprising [my brother] was back. And all retuned. The thing is, my sister was lucky as – one of them – she was member of the WSM Żoliborz [Warsaw Housing Cooperative, Borough of Żoliborz]. And she got an apartment. Because she was, // she had a right to. The law was still existent and the law was observed, shit, that was ←397 | 398→marvellous. You wouldn’t even believe it now, that such moments could be the case now. Coming to Warsaw, and getting a dwelling. And Warsaw’s all debris. [laughs] Well, after all, a professor of a sort, or another, like, dignitary, would say, ‘What’s that, and how about me? Am I to sleep in a tent? And she’s going to… in there?’ The law was the law. She’s a member of the WSM and a flat is allocable to her. And well, that’s what it was like.
Let us bear in mind that Roman Strój did not return to Warsaw immediately after the war but only in 1947. And thus, he is recalling a family memory at the moment. Save for their father, his family have survived the war; dispersed after the Uprising, they reunited in Warsaw afterwards. His sister’s dwelling in Żoliborz is the key feature in this story. The receipt of this accommodation is constructed as a lucky occurrence in the family, and an act of justice. The narrator eagerly and incredulously tells us that honest law was in force then, that the previously contracted obligations were kept. The most unbelievable, ‘marvellous’ thing for him is that the law proved efficient with regard to his own sister, who was, after all, an ordinary human being, and a poor one too – like the whole family. Not a professor, not a dignitary; and she made it all the same! His abstract comparison of the justice of that time against the injustice, lawlessness of today leads my Interviewee to the conviction that nowadays, something of the sort would certainly not be possible.
This image gives us insight in social distances – or, putting it stricter: in the way Roman feels and experiences them. There is an elite on the one side – with their sense of superiority: their interests come ahead of the law, or the law stands at their service. On the other side, at the opposite pole, are people from his own social universe: subordinate, dependent, with no social capitals attainable, doomed to work hard, getting paid peanuts. This opposition – in various scenes, less clearly sometimes – reappears in many a place in this narrative, not just in reference to this particular biographical moment.
Thus, Roman had somebody and someplace to return to. Many Varsovians returning from Nazi camps were not as lucky, though.
[RS:] And I arrived in Warsaw, and reported at the, sort of, point – I think it was called a ‘PUR’. What was it called?
[PF:] Repatriation Office. The Polish National Office of Repatriation.
[RS:] The office, this is, exactly… [pointing at the documents] The PUR. And there I reported, in Warsaw, in Jerozolimskie Avenue or somewhere, and they gave me something there too. Some clothing, partial, sort of, that is: a cap, a sweater, or something. And, a few pennies, or some slice of bread. In any case, there was something, there. And with that ‘there was something’, I returned home and, well, began hanging around. …
[My mother] lived together with my sisters in Żoliborz, in Próchnika Street. And I came along there; there also was the situation that one room and a kitchen, damn it… And there were the four of us – meaning: myself and the two sisters and mom.
[PF:] And your brother already lived…←398 | 399→
[RS:] My brother already lived in Koło, in Obozowa St., all the time. Because those blocks[-of-flats] were not destroyed by the war or the Rising. They survived. A strange thing, they survived.
[PF:] And what did you live on?
[RS:] Well, this is it. There, the situation was such: on various welfare funding, whichever functioned at the time. And besides, one of them, as I told you, that Stefa sister, she’s dead now, in fact, all are dead beside me [laughs]… I have still remained. And all that is [= those are] already down in the ground. There is Stefa the sister, who did the sewing; she was the best. My brother had it out of his hair, for he already formed a separate family, and worked as a stoker, in year twenty, in Obozowa St. He remained … after the war, ’cause we’re talking, after the war, right?
[PF:] That’s right.
[RS:] There still were the two sisters remaining, and me. And the mom. And so, as we already lived in… In Koło… // Just a moment, what was it like? We were moving, from Koło to Marymont once, but I think from Marymont to Koło too. In any case, as far as work is concerned, then the work was the following only: my brother’s, that one [= his job] was reliable, but he already had a family – a wife and a son. And we had that sister, who was the tailor and she manages [= managed] the things well. And she had to carry a great burden. For my mom went to, sort of, subsistence allowances, meaning, like, a casual job. Looking after something for somebody, tidying, this, that. The sort of thing. And my dad, already… // Because the dad was dead yet. He was no more with us after the war. So, there was me, my sister Hela who died later on too, in Żytnia Street, there. But this is yet, the thing. // And there remained, without Hela, the following; me, Bronka, Stefa, mom. Then, for these four persons… Mom, from time to time; Stefa did something as a tailor; and Bronka also, irregularly, somewhere… And me – well, to a school, possibly. And I didn’t work, anywhere. And that’s what it was like. Well, you were, somehow, hard up there, sort of.
No symbolical scene of greeting, entering the home, meeting the mother has been evoked. He is preoccupied with something else: the miserable financial situation of himself and of the rest of the family, in the first place. Although Roman spent a dozen or so post-war months in the transit camp conditions, which were not the worst possible, given the circumstances of the time, the first episode he spontaneously recollects from Warsaw is his turning up at the Repatriation Office to get some clothing and food there. The reminiscence further on unfolds along this track.
Now that the war is over, the concentration camp and transit camps are all over, one has to return to his or her place in the social map of the city. The place is not comfortable – and still it will be his lot to labour a real lot to maintain it. ‘Being hard up’ is a tough and tiresome activity – particularly for a mother and sisters working on joint account; this includes the upkeep of Roman, so he could stay away from having to work immediately, and study for some time.
His delayed return from Austria and Germany becomes a biographical issue: a foothold for official suspicion. Enforced contacts with representatives of authorities, ←399 | 400→meetings and talks around this particular point, have thus become part of Roman’s experience. This is yet another example of a more general practice, rather than some isolated case.
[RS:] Because it was like: as I only attended the gymnasium, then later on, as we completed that gymnasium and the lyceum, then we had… // Those who completed that school had a referral to Piła, on the higher officer, automotive, school. And as I went there, together with those schoolmates, there were examinations, various, a board there was, like. And they found that I couldn’t, to that school, // I couldn’t. For many reasons. I had been in the camp, and that’s already a crime, same thing as under Stalin. Those who were in the camp were traitors of the homeland, and such were hanged, or driven to a taiga. And same thing there. In that Piła, they found it that the thing… // Because my father, after World War One, also had been in that poverty, he set off together with my mother to do seasonal work in France. Then, they called my father a ‘freethinker’.
[PF:] And that’s what they dragged out to hold against you, right?
[RS:] They dragged [it] out [against] me, in an opinion [stating] that I couldn’t be in that school. And now, ‘How come, you’ve been in Austria?’ Once they heard: Austria, that was the end, completely. ‘In Austria? And what, what did you do in that Austria?’ I say, ‘Well, I was in the concentration camp, Mauthausen’. ‘And in Mauthausen you were too?’ That’s what they were, this sort of a standard. Either they had to be such, or they were such. And of those boors on that board, there were, t be exact, eight, I think. Eight, at least. And the opinion like that, and, later: ‘Then, you shall get back again to Warsaw and report at the point that has referred you to us here, and thank you for…’ But I’m saying, ‘Well, but what’s next?’ ‘You’ll be told it there.’ Well, then I came over here, to Warsaw, and they’re telling me. The headquarters was in Szucha Avenue, the one that sorted these matters out. They say, ‘So now, given the situation you are in…’ … And I had by then taken a job in that Light Industry Design Office. And the story was such that as I was, from that military there, from Piła, then I should have … come back to work, to that office. But I had earlier on to report at that military point in Szucha Avenue. And well, I’m telling them that the situation is this or that, and, ‘What should I do?’ And they [reply], ‘You do nothing, just wait till we give you.’ Same thing as those ones from the AK [Home Army], the Warsaw Uprising. ‘You wait, you’ll see.’ And there was nothing. The luck was mine, perhaps, ’cause I would’ve perhaps been dead. … So I’m waiting and waiting, and should’ve reported at work. This is because when I was sacked from the army, then, well, to the work! The labour’s ready to take. And that’s, moreover, the commune [komuna – i.e., colloq., the communist system], and so on, it’s no picnic. And I had the alibi that I had reported there and they told me, you move nowhere from here, mister, just wait at home till you’re ordered. Then, I’m waiting. There’s a month passing, two [months] passing, three [months] passing. And once, a mage from that office, for I’d got to the job [sic] together with him, says, ‘Roman, you come over to work, ’cause one they get to know that you are, holy smoke, doing nothing, just…’ Because there was something like the wage was going on, or something? Well, for I was drafted, in this ←400 | 401→kind of sense, right? Holy mackerel, eh? I’m saying, right you are, that’s a tragedy. And well, I’m dashing forth, might and main. I’m reporting at that personnel lady in that institution, and she says, ‘Well then, it’s good you’ve came here. Then, well, you start your labour tomorrow. Then, you’ll register with that engineer man, he’ll instruct you what you’re supposed to do in here.’ A nice thing, I’m already approved, have my case settled. There, with those military-men of Szucha Avenue, to a degree; not quite, rather. And well, I’m waiting, and the waiting is at it is, that there’s no signal given. Or even if there were any, so what? I’m employed already.
The stay in the camp and, even more so, his stay in the West after the liberation turns out to be an important element in Roman Strój’s biography. Not just for himself, and for an entirely different reason. By virtue of political decisions, he begins bearing the imprint of a suspect, uncertain, ‘dodgy’ man. Thereby, he appears not fit for certain roles and cannot enter certain social environments, particularly, the military. Someone has to pronounce and decree this incapacity. Roman clearly evokes a board consisting of ‘at least eight boors’. He has memorised them well because, as might be guessed, they have gravely altered the course of his life, or career path, in any case. He tries to interpret their attitude, but the interaction he describes was too short for him to be able to recognise the possible distance they might have had to the role they played with respect to him. He is giving them a chance, for maybe they had to behave like that.
Characteristic of this account is that when Roman shows any repressions of the ‘commune’ period, he usually evokes Stalin, Siberia, taiga, etc. Such juxtapositions and comparisons give a common denominator to all those experiences, which makes it easier for him to emphasise his distance to the system as a whole. This is clearly the case at this moment too. Yet, his particular case, like many similar ones, is clearly different from the situation of Russians liberated in the camp, which is familiar to him. What he (and his peers) is being through is, in any case, a smaller calibre of repression. All that ends at not admitting the man to a military school. The higher-tier authority, in Warsaw, loses interest in his insignificant case, leaving him uncertain of whether, and when, another opportunity to land a job somewhere might come.
There indeed appears an opportunity to ‘land’, but someplace else: a peculiar reversal of his expectations. A moment after the previously evoked image, the memory reminisces a situation of Roman being prevailed upon to join the communist party. Again, a typical experience and related story construction known to the reader:
Well, they wanted, asked why I am not with the Party, that I should join the Party ranks, at least the youth organisation. And later, I was too old to be youth, too young for the Party. For this is what it was like, as a matter of fact. In any case, it was not like I’d be asked, but when I worked in the WSK [i.e. the Okęcie factory], there was one such that asked, a Party man: ‘Colleague …, comrade, we would be glad to see you with our organisation.’ But [that] was not forcefully, just like that. A buddy, as if, this ←401 | 402→and that, as if, but: you sign in, then you’ll be with us. But I didn’t sign in, it went on somehow. And the Party passed by me.
The headhunting image is back with us: he is being softly persuaded, by a workmate, coaxing, exerting soft pressure… The response is a no less soft ‘marking time’ strategy, dodging the pressure and hiding from it. It proves efficient in this case: the enlistment eventually fails, the recruitment action is suspended, the Party has ‘passed by’ Mr Roman Strój. Not for good, though; it is back with him one day, in a different experience:
[RS:] Well, in spite that I had to do with the Party. Because this very flat, which I now have here, this was a story of the sort that I was attendance-listed, // for accommodation, // as the last, tenth. And there lived a Jew. Who, when those riots were, … of March , then they had the privilege of leaving abroad. And he went to Argentina. And that was a tied accommodation.
[PF:] And who was that man?
[RS:] An engineer, manager of a department. But, as it was, he was a Jew too and used it [= the opportunity], and he went away to that Argentina. And the apartment, well, remained. And I, being the tenth in the accommodation list, caught it. For even the partyjniaks [colloq., communist party members] couldn’t believe I dwelled like that. ’Cause I lived with my mother-in-law in Grochowska St., and there the conditions were such that your brain is fried. They couldn’t believe it when they came in. They said, ‘You, Roman, show us that flat, we’ll make up some board, because it’s impossible that you live there.’ And well, once I had an opinion like that… // Well, that’s the way you live now.
Now, the point is not about persuading him to join the Party: it is about outwitting it. In the short story Roman is building about how he eventually won his apartment – the same in which we are having our conversation – he plays the part of a stowaway. He has no party ID, and is not an officially registered beneficiary of the system. In spite of this, he draws out of this system significant benefits for himself – getting an old-tenement-house apartment located in the very downtown area of Warsaw. Initially, the last on an ‘accommodation attendance list’, he is served on a priority basis. The informal system rules privileging the party members, the recognised individuals, get suspended for a while. This becomes possible by virtue of interpersonal – and human – relationships that get organised otherwise than merely along the division line between the party-member elite and the ‘remainder’. It namely becomes apparent that the ‘partyjniaks’ followed the impulse of the heart and, following a site inspection at the narrator’s previous dwelling, eventually admitted him to participate in the distribution of profit. Thus, he ‘caught it’, saving his face and good conscience for himself.
The language used in this fragment of Roman’s narration is characteristic to the period and the events he is referring to. This language is a constitutive part of his experience, no less important than the experiences themselves, to which it refers us. ‘Accommodation list’, ‘catch it [an opportunity]’, ‘board’ (or ‘committee’) and ←402 | 403→an ‘opinion’ it has issued – all these descriptions are part of the communication code in use at that time. Without them, the narrator would not probably be able to recount that situation.
Important to the experience of ‘catching’ the apartment is its historic context, the events of March 1968. It was the anti-Semitic smear campaign that caused the tied apartment to ‘remain’ empty and its host to leave Poland. But there is another thread of these occurrences that Roman is evoking: he mentions the ‘riots’ of March ’68 as he probably only means the student protest action (and, possibly, the ZOMO [Mechanised Brigades of the People’s Militia] and the ‘active workers’’ gangs). His perception is that the students were remonstrating instead of studying, whereas the Jews received the privilege of leaving abroad. Some, the engineer being one example, ‘used the opportunity and went away’.
The period’s official propaganda language proliferated by the system has got strongly solidified; it has moreover been internalised by my Interviewee, together with his interpretation of the events it referred to. This language perfectly fit his earlier prejudices – and excellently facilitated the adding of autobiographical significance to the acquisition of the apartment Roman has occupied ever since. One finds it more comfortable, after all, to reside in a place that formerly belonged to someone who once ‘went away’ to Argentina than someone who was threatened and made to leave. Roman is sharing his truth with us; while not much true, this truth is authentic.
The last thread in Roman Strój’s biography around which we have managed to build a fairly extensive narrative is his involvement in the milieu of former concentration camp inmates. This is an important thing for my Interviewee, in this phase of his biography; one of the most important of his social activities – perhaps just the most significant one, apart from his family activity. And, consequently, he dwells on it at quite a length.
I could tell you one little anecdote. That I learned in [= from] the press that there’s going to be a Mauthausen-men’s reunion in Krakowskie Przedmieście St. And there, well, because the time was strongly Party-imbued, everything, no matter where, the chairman had to be a decent member of the Party. And, analogously, the following happened: the people left the meeting. The people left the meeting, they didn’t want to take part in that masquerade. For the people had selected their own ones [= representatives], those who were in the camp, and the Party, its own ones. And the Party won. Related to this, as they won, then the others left the premises. And ever since I had a pause, didn’t look for anything – until I learned that Arolsen… …
I wrote a letter; they sent me this [showing me a document issued in 1973]. And this document participates in all my actions, here in this country. Whatever it might be: whether I am a war veteran, or am this, or am that, whether I’m here. Look, the Union of Fighters [for Freedom and Democracy; abbr. ‘ZBOWiD’]. All this is based upon that.
His first attempt at getting associated with a veteran milieu ends up in complete failure. Roman is not willing to take part in the activities of the centralised and ←403 | 404→politicised ZBOWiD organisation. Since there is no peer organisation around the place, he willy-nilly quits for a good while. Several years after, he comes across another opportunity: this comes, to him and to most of his former camp mates, in the mid-seventies. Let us remind that it was then that a Veterans’ Act came into effect at that time, ensuring social rights and benefits to war veterans (before then, regulations existed that warranted the rights to individual groups – but not an act or law). The Act provided that eligibility for such benefits be related to membership with the ZBOWiD (not without exception, though). However, this thread is absent in this narrative; it would not have matched the preceding one. It is obscured by the reminiscence of correspondence exchanged with the International Tracing Service. There is no mention that a certificated obtained from this organisation was primarily used in determining the veteran eligibilities and only afterwards was of use in a number of other occasions mentioned by the narrator. One such occasion is our present meeting, in the course of which we have several times referred to this particular document.
Before we can learn more of the subsequent degree of Roman’s involvement in the milieu of former inmates, lasting until now, he would make an important digression – about those survivors who shun any relation with that milieu, and likewise with any form of veteran or combatant self-identification and related activities, institutions, or rituals. Such attitude is at the expense of privileges, an option they quit purposefully, ‘walking tall’:
[RS:] And, let me still, on the subject… // ’Cause, well, there’s been cases… … Some people who came from the camps entirely ceased any activity. They simply believed that this was enough for them, the activity they had had there.
[PF:] They didn’t want to resume this at all?
[RS:] At all, they said it was… And you still can meet … persons who for instance do not take advantage of the privileges of participating in the gifts. When there were these gifts, which for the camp-men… // Well, margarine… this, that… Such a lad wouldn’t want [that] at all, nor… // ‘Do not please tuck no stuff in for me.’ And the other one, exactly the thing I’m talking about, from the Warsaw Technological University, some professor. And they wanted to suck him into there, into our club, for him to be [there], for he was, like, // such one would be of use, right? He expelled them, just like that, says, ‘I want not a word on the topic. I’ve been in a camp, served my term up, and that’s enough for me. And do please not get me meddled in any camp matters.’ So, people are what they are. Some follow that pelf, whatever it would be like, while others have more of the ambition, so-called, if you can put it this way. And they say that, ‘Thank you, but we’ve been through what we’ve been through, and please do not come back to this anymore, for that is played-out and is uneasy on the ear to us.
It is with admiration that my Interviewee looks at such resolute and tough stance. He assumes for a while the perspective of those who have resolved to take it – a standpoint he ascribes to them as he believes they disdain the German gifts, take offence, rather than ‘following that pelf’. He blends this ←404 | 405→motivation with another one, which is probably more important, as a matter of fact. Many are not even willing to hear a word on the camp, as every single word opens their non-cicatrised wounds anew, evoking the trauma of the experience.
However, as for himself, he would not work up the attitude the aforementioned professor impressed him with. Roman pursues intense social contacts, and needs to feel the sense of belonging to a community – and the former inmates’ milieu satisfies this need, perhaps unlike anything else. This group offers him an opportunity to share his own camp experiences, and of being understood; better than at home. This is the reason why, asked whether he has shared his camp experiences with his family, my Interviewee says:
No, that’s the point, no. I don’t say. With my colleagues, most of that, with my colleagues. With those that I was in the camp [with] … . They’re alive, and I only talk on this subject with them. … If you were in the camp, and so was I, and some Kommandos comingled there, that you can talk with that one, although he was with the Kommando [called] Zementkommando, or some sort of another Kommando.
The get-along strategy is, for some, remaining silent and getting detaching from those experiences, whilst others seek to share them with others, incessantly repeating, talking up, processing – part of which is co-participated commemoration rituals or trips to sites of memory, to the former camp site.
[RS:] I did it like all the others, remaining ones. [laughs] That I persisted, so to speak, as a former concentration camp inmate. All the documents which I could gather, I have gathered. And, well? I am in the Club, am active with the Board. [laughs] … With the Board, but I’m not doing quite well with that. … I reproach myself, you could say, as I’m not active enough. One could’ve, ’cause the colleagues [are] younger and sounder than me, ’cause I’m a little ailing all the same, you have to admit. After all, I’ve got a variety of trouble, the heart, and this, and that, and anything else. Otherwise, who’s free of that? Once there’s someone grudging, then a camp-man, like, everyone’ll say, ‘And what d’you think, am I any different? I’ve got my sicknesses, same way as you do.’ But there, at present, there are colleagues in our Club who really … run the Club nicely, and are healthier, and are willing to work. So, you could only envy them. I am even getting astonished every once in a while. I’d say, ‘Yo, bo, what’s up there, whatever?’ And he’d say, ‘You know, someone has to do it, blinking!’
‘Very nice, well then. But why’s it you that devote so much of that time? You don’t have to, do you? No one makes you do it, and still you…’ So, we’ve got a few such active mates in the operation and work of our Club and Association. Well, it’s due to their intercession and assistance, activity, in fact, that we’ve got a banner. And that’s what we didn’t have. Who would’ve thought about a banner thing! We have got our camp banner.
[PF:] And, has this milieu of Mauthausen-Gusen prisoners and of all the subcamps always been isolated, or is it that it has recently got isolated, as it is?←405 | 406→
[RS:] No, we have always appeared as a Mauthausen Club, and now we’re appearing as an association, but the Mauthausen-Gusen Club has been maintained continually. In spite that something’s become, a bit, of those… // Association of the Handicapped, no… // Association of Former Nazi Concentration Camp Prisoners. … Some of the colleagues are members of there, and members of here. … I have never switched any, I am with this organisation of ours, that is, the Mauthausen-Gusen Club. An association of this kind is there as well. As the Association is, the Club exists the same way. I am a member of one only, the Mauthausen-Gusen Club; whereas some of the colleagues signed up with that club, of those… Former Concentration Camp Prisoners… Former Nazi Concentration Camp Prisoners, and so forth.
[PF:] … Prisons and Concentration Camps.
[RS:] Yes, and that’s another club, as if, and they are with the two clubs. But, the AK [= Home Army] have an advantage, in that some colleagues have the right – who belong to that other one, of here and there – have the right to be treated, for instance, free of charge, within the frame of that club. They’ve got some club somewhere there, in Solec St.
Roman Strój is member of a club of Mauthausen-Gusen prisoners. The Club has recently obtained legal personality, with the official status of association and a banner. It is unique that former inmates of a remote camp, situated outside Poland (and thus receiving no support or assistance from the site of memory or Museum), grew institutionally, organisationally, and financially separate. They no more have to belong to any other camp prisoner organisations to obtain veteran privileges, so-called damages for imprisonment in the camp and slave labour. My Interviewee participates in this status as he only formally belongs to the association of former inmates of Mauthausen-Gusen.
He strongly emphasises his colleagues’ engagement in various Club-related affairs. He can see many of these men around; for some of them, this activity is like a career, pursued with a greater intentness and involvement. The formalities, official businesses related to the functioning of their Association become their personal affairs.329 Roman is not one of these activists; he prefers to stay in the background.←406 | 407→
He finds excuse in his deteriorated health, but is not sure whether his colleagues are really in a better shape. Those younger than him are very few, born a year or two, or perhaps three, years before him, so this argument somewhat misses the point again.
Like almost all former inmates of former camps, some Mauthausen survivors belong to one, if not both, of the large organisations consociating former camp prisoners. After the ZBOWiD was dissolved in 1990, it was replaced by an organisation named Association of the Veterans [resp., Combatants] of the Republic of Poland and Former Political Prisoners (abbr. ZKRPiBWP), the largest Polish multi-milieu veteran/combatant body. In parallel to it, there emerged another organisation, only gathering the former inmates of Nazi prisons and camps, called Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps (abbr. PZBWPHWiOK). While distancing itself from the former ZBOWiD, the Association tried to refer to the tradition of a former prisoners’ organisation existing immediately after the war, before it was incorporated in the ZBOWiD. These bodies’ names are longish, similar to each other, and confusable. Their members tend to get confused about them, and so does my Interviewee; all the more that the divisions, clear a few or a dozen years ago, are getting blurred today: the same people are seen attending meetings of various organisations, and some of them are, in addition, members of the Disabled Soldiers’ Association.
However, for the Mauthausen and Gusen inmates, particularly those from Warsaw, their own milieu and Club remains the major point of reference. Today, it is run by its largest membership group – former prisoners from Warsaw transports, carried away to the camp during the Warsaw Uprising and shortly afterwards: specifically, the youngest among them, those aged over eighty today. Many of them got involved in the milieu in the last dozen or so years, when retired; but even earlier on, in the ZBOWiD period, the circle of Mauthausen/Gusen’s former inmates was quite individuated. Albeit formally this group was perishing in the centralised countrywide structures, there were strong bonds between the former inmates. This is confirmed e.g. by the accounts of the oldest former prisoners who, though living in different towns, having their jobs and occupations, their own political views and worldviews, exchanged letters and sometimes met in person. Those residing in Warsaw had a fixed place and time to meet: their meetings held on a regular monthly basis turned into an institution that lasted several dozen years330, and only recently has been formally authorised.←407 | 408→
Roman does not confine himself to this, rather smoothed, story on the community he is member of. Beside the official, surface layer of the group’s functioning, he is aware of how complex the interpersonal relations he observes and experiences within it can be. He can see conflicts too – and this is perhaps why he is not one of the most active Club members.
It seems to me that now, it’s nearing a normalisation, a settlement yet… One has to pay attention to such positive moments. Because there still are wrongful attempts. It only the West, especially Germany and Austria, were giving some… // What’s that called? Some pennies, for that’s what you could call it, then, with this as a background, there can… // there could’ve emerged some nuances still. But there’s hope that nothing else will go. And that’ll be okay. Because all the time, on the basis, against the background of these, precisely, damages, whatever you’d call it, there’s been problems. There were problems. For now, there are none, and there won’t be. End of the game now. But there have been problems. Should more be given to those who served two years, or five? Because that’s what it was like before. When there was some sort of money, then he who served five years got thirty thousand, and he who served one year got two or three thousand. Well, and now, what it was like that was, then they also wanted to resume this. That is, differentiate between the fives, the threes, the twos, and the ones. And the Germans… // For that’s the German job. Because, had the Germans done it like they did, then we’d be having the same ball-up as was there before. Otherwise, now, equally for everyone, and no hassle at all. …
It’s the known thing that, exactly, those Häftlings, just like me, the ones like myself, faced the worst situation. Well, ’cause, he’d come over from the Rising, and … those old Häftlings who had been [there] a few years each laughed then at us: ‘What are you, there, and stuff, you’ve come in at the end yet’, right? That this is, apparently, a plus card [i.e. a ‘trump’, strong point], that we’ve been rotting away for five years now… // Well, rotting away, rotting away, but living. And us, you cannot tell if we’ll be alive tomorrow. For we’re done if there’s the other S[S] -man coming up to us and saying, “Fetch’em here, now.” And that’s it. All said and done. There’s nothing, as I said, the day we were received in Auschwitz, at the muster, where that Höss greeted us, two of them bit the dust. … And how many hours he’d been there? Was it ten hours, in the camp? And that one, he’s been [there] five years, but he is there; but he’s living.
There are two main embers of conflict – or, in fact, there is one, with the other stemming from it. The point is, namely, damages, or redress, offered for the time ←408 | 409→served in the camp. The names are not good and many former inmates cannot accept them, preferring to refer to allowances or benefits, grants, or support.331 The money appeared late – only in the last dozen or so years. With such late coming, by the rule of biology, the assistance only extend to a small proportion of those who have survived the camp.
The last provided money, disbursed in 2001–6, was larger (ca. EUR 7,600 per person) and equally distributed among all former inmates. A different but also equal amount was received by former coerced labourers – industry workers being given different money than agricultural workers.332 The distribution of these funds triggered big emotion. This has been somewhat alleviated by today; such tensions rarely go beyond the former inmates’ circle. One cannot identify such tensions from the outside, especially when watching veterans participating in official celebrations or laying flowers on their colleagues’ graves. Traces of various tensions are at times audible, for a change, in biographical accounts.
Roman Strój is one of those former inmates who stayed at the camp for a relatively very short time: less than one year, a ‘mere’ few months. This is a group of the youngest prisoners, of whom the largest number remain alive nowadays. Roman defends the equality solution assumed with the recent disbursements, whilst criticising differentiated amounts related to the length of imprisonment, as applied before. In order to justify that the equality solution is right, he goes back to his own experiences – the ones of a rank-and-file Häftling, wedged in the lower ranges of the camp hierarchy. These particular experiences are already known to us. He also refers to a comparison with the oldest, long-term prisoners, those “rotting away, but living”, whereas those from his own Warsaw transport are dying in mass.
A workmate appears again (I will not quote this passage in its entirety), who had spent five years at the kacet and did not complain about the conditions prevailing there. “Well, just a moment, then: should such one be paid too? Once he confesses this himself, because he’s my workmate”. Now, he is called for to give his testimony for the case – as a ‘witness for the defence’, one can add, for his evidence is meant to confirm that the assumed solution for the damages issue is equitable.
Before then, when the narration mentioned a reminiscence of the arrival at the camp and a meeting with the oldest Polish inmates, we could learn of their ‘positive compassion’. Although he never received help from anyone of them, Roman built the ←409 | 410→image with appreciation, and with compassion. It seemed clear that he caught the shared lot of the old and young inmates, the numerous differences in the situation of both groups being only due to the shift in time. Here, in turn, with a completely different context of enunciation, the image of long-term prisoners has also changed; what we now learn is that they mocked at, or at least scoffed, the Warsaw youth.
This selective and, so to say, ancillary labour of the memory now offers a reminiscence that helps him make himself (and, possibly, me) convinced that older inmates ought not to receive higher damages. They are morally ineligible. There is no more chance to move beyond the image of an old Häftling now being constructed, and to reconsider the fact that before he became so, he had been a young inexperienced Zugang, new to the circumstances. He had passed this stage of the camp trajectory – no less cruel than the one experienced by my Interviewee – a few years before then; had he not passed it – thousands of others had so failed – he would not have watched the arrival of Zugangs from Warsaw with ‘positive compassion’.
Tension can also be sensed on the other side. Some among the long-term inmates, a sparse group today, are holding grudge because of such equality solution prevailing. For them, this is a manifestation of injustice (encountered once again).333 One could probably think of no solution that would have not generated tensions of the like kind: the camp-time recollections and the accompanying emotions are too strong.
Our conversation, lasting four hours, is almost over. Before we are done, I would like, together with my Interviewee, to leave the area of veteran and financial matters and resume, for a while, a more personal story.
Much more than the damages issue, of interest to me is the unsolicited and irrecusable camp inheritance. So, I am asking whether there are dreams, burdensome reminiscences, or other images reappearing, incessantly haunting him. Not only am I receiving an answer to my question: I have improvidently activated one of those nightmarish reoccurring scenes:
Yes, there’ve been, there’ve been, there’ve been [some images reminiscent of the camp – PF’s note]. And that lasted later long. And, just a moment… Even now, I’m getting some unforeseen… My wife would quite often wake me up there, ’cause I’m ←410 | 411→gabbing some things. And, about the camp I did have [some dreams], because as I slept on that American occupation, the mates are saying in the night, “Roman, what’s that there? You’re shouting, ‘Auschwitz’, ‘Oświęcim’, something, ‘Mauthausen’…” Because I caterwauled in the night. Something must’ve been there. Perhaps it was that German’s beating, that Blockältester’s, with the poker. Maybe, ’cause I got my arse kicked by the Blockführer too …, he gave me a hiding. ’Cause, shit, either I was egged on, or did it myself, couldn’t stand it. There was … a peeling room for potatoes, carrots, and so on. And there was, such a, machine, it was all revolving, the washing, flushing, scraping was going on. But there was a, like… // a catchment, and all that dirty stuff was going down there. I don’t know if I was egged on, that’s what I cannot tell. Or I did it on my own, out of my own will. Pee. Into that stuff. And one of those Spaniards, fucking arsehole, fingered me. Told that Führer … . And he, with such quirt. And, he started fucking whacking me around… that’s what I must say. After three blows, I leaked the second time. All the more that I had nothing to leak with. It’s good that only this happened. And after me, the second one in the sequence, one Russki. A Russki, a rather elderly guy, he might’ve been over fifty. The guy was, such a, quiet and polite, civilised. As the German walloped him with that, after me, ’cause I was the first, and he, the second – then he couldn’t, although under Stalin he probably suffered and so on, but something like that he hadn’t ever seen in his life yet, that Russek. So, what it must’ve been like in that camp, if a Russian who had a firsthand experience of those hardships of life of that whole Soviet society, couldn’t agree there. He said, “How can a man be tormented like this?” Bloody thing [orig., ‘wadded jacket’]. In Russki [= Russian], right? He was crying, poor thing, right? And he gave him a bash, like this. On snap, the way they did the beating… // Once he beat, he did so with all his heart. Like one of them [got beaten]. I can remember… Something, there, with that soup, it’s boiling, those huge pots. And something there was mismatched there, and that one came up, and see how he’s sticking one on him! On a worker, Häftling. ’Cross the back, like, so he got a pop-up spot here. A varicose vein, like, finger-long. So really awful. They battered unbelievably. When they weren’t beating, they were not, but once they got their hooks on beating, then…
Camp-related dreams is a subject that frequently reappears in former prisoners’ autobiographical narrations. Some of them can remember their content very precisely334; others just say they have nightmarish dreams – or, in most cases, had such ←411 | 412→dreams in the past. Others still say they scream in the night.335 Mr Strój tries to build a rational justification for his screaming at night. His memory suddenly activates a detailed and very incisive reminiscence, which has never appeared before. The image is detached from its context of space and time: we do not learn at what moment and in which subcamp the scene took place. These details are of no relevance for him; the reminiscence is not governed by the order of facts but by a disorder of trauma. The narrator copes with it. This is a hard-fought struggle, whose result can be nothing more than chasing off the reminiscence before it reappears again, unwanted. But to be chased off, it needs being recounted. Taking on the narrative of that experience and the trauma stemming from it, my Interviewee quits caring about the language; ceasing to accurately select the words and phrases, he disregards the fact that he is being recorded.
The story of his own nightmare turns into a narrative on the nightmare of the camp, on the situation of other Häftlings whose situation is similar to his own. The memory has enlivened the image of a Russian inmate being tormented. Roman tries to repeat the man’s words and to imitate his crying. This piece of narrative does not completely fit the stereotype he has been constructing so far. He remembers about it, and can see the contradiction. The only thing that remains is for him to regard it as an exception, a deviation from the rule. The Russian man got beaten to the extent that the ‘Russek’ burst within him – tough, dauntless, all-resistant man, well-tested and proven by Stalinist regime, by the ‘hardships of life of … [the] Soviet society’. Even he was broken by the Nazi camp, and the trauma triggered by those images has undermined the solidified cognitive patterns.
The narrator’s memory, thus carelessly and unwittingly disarmed by me, has led him again to the images from the very core of the camp’s reality, although it seemed a moment ago that we had moved far away from them. It has so happened because the core is a point without coordinates; it remains undefined, in time or space terms. It is a distinct reminiscence-and-symbol, quintessence, and extract of my Interviewee’s specific experience, which is one of an ordinary Häftling, almost ←412 | 413→a Muselmann, who could be clubbed to death at any moment, and in front of whom those already clubbed, humans similar to him, are getting killed.
The outburst of this reminiscence is the last strictly narrative image appearing in this account – but not the very last passage of it. Roman Strój is building a commentary he will add to conclude his story.
I would have all of them [i.e. the Germans (PF’s note)] killed off, executed off… [laughs] But as time goes on, this is all receding. Receding, receding, and now I’m becoming more, sort of, emollient and tolerant yet. Well, what’s up here? You wouldn’t tell how I would’ve behaved. Such discussions are on, between myself and myself [i.e. inside myself]. Yeeah. And still, you can see, some of the colleagues… Because after the camp, I thought then that this circle of those former concentration camp prisoners would have formed, I’m not saying that some specific faction in the society, but, that those would be the other sort of people. Those people have survived that camp ordeals. Then, at any place, whether he be on a job, or be a minister, or be a director, or be a bricklayer, regardless of where he would be, in whatever hierarchy, then he would be that good man. Bullshit! [laughs] There’s nothing happening.
This is a very sad punchline, although my Interviewee cracks a smile. A disconcerting conclusion also for him, as the smile emphasises his disappointment. The camp experience has apparently gone down the drain: the people have not grown bettered, but maybe even spoiled, destroyed, instead. Roman himself has long felt hatred toward the Germans, and wanted to get them killed. He hoped that from a time perspective, the camp would appear a purgatory for the prisoners who had survived. But that was merely an illusion. He remained convinced that the camp has not purged anyone; just affected, perhaps. The camp has remained what it was for Roman throughout his inmate time: a hell on earth. Not a devilish-human but inter-human hell.
The camp trajectory has been the extreme stage of his path of life. However, it has not appeared to be a biographical breakthrough or turning point in this path. The place that fell to his lot to occupy in the social universe of the camp came as radical confirmation of his social position in the ordinary, off-camp world. When in the kacet, he was a sheer Häftling, who was down of his luck most of the time. Although he has never been at the bottom level of social hierarchies, whether before the war and after, he has always stayed far away from any privileged position. Luck has not too often come across him, and in this particular respect he could not much count on meeting it on his way.
Roman has not had much of a say in choosing his paths of life; instead, they were set for him in advance, as if imposed. The only thing he could do was bypass the obstacles, evade blows. There was no option for him to delineate his own biographical routes. My Interviewee’s biography is pervaded by determinism – the camp stage being the clearest instance, with the camp not being a reversal but a radical intensification of the mechanisms of a normal social universe, a horrible caricature of it. The positions taken and roles played within it are an extreme variant of the positions and roles from beyond that universe. Such is Roman Strój’s ←413 | 414→experience. The coordinates of his point of observation (and experience) of both these universes have not changed much with regards to their entireties.
The experience of the camp, understood as a certain whole, the lesson of his life, has left in my Interviewee an unfulfilled, frustrated hope for improvement of the human world. Not an abstract one but the world within reach, the one that is experienced on a daily basis. A moral improvement of his colleagues, and himself, perhaps, too.
The intense camp lesson that has honed the sense of observation has yielded one more thing: consideration of how a social reality is constructed, with roles played within it and their determining power. The discussion “between myself and myself”, pointing out that “you wouldn’t tell how I would’ve behaved”, is a trace of such afterthought.
282 Kozielec is a village of 130 inhabitants, situated on the bank of the Vistula, in the Bydgoszcz County [poviat], Commune [gmina] of Dobrcz.
283 Such direct declarations tend to often be made in the stories told by former prisoners of this group. One Mauthausen club fellow thus expresses his symbiosis with the town in the opening fragment of his own story: “My name is Nowicki, Henryk, an old Varsovian, you know. Whatever was connected in the Occupation with Warsaw, concerned by family. Till the very end, up until the camp’s liberation and the return to Warsaw. And well, later on, it was all just Warsaw all the time, you know, and nowhere else. … Hence, all that was connected with Warsaw, you know, was connected with me, and from the moment I was born, which was the year twenty-nine, I mean, 1920. My parents [were] also from Warsaw, and my grandparents too, you know.”; account of Henryk Nowicki, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_018.
284 Yet, the vagueness of this borderline tends to be problematised and subject to afterthought within autobiographies: “I cannot really remember my earliest childhood, that is, the infantile period and the first years of my life, and have to omit them”. Such a declaration does not imply, however, that the narrator has completely neglected those earliest years: “What I only know is that my father …”: cf. account of Michał Fertak, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_019 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).
285 The universe of the workers’ district of Wola in its pre-war shape is well pictured by Jerzy S. Majewski in his article ‘Obozowa’ (Gazeta Wyborcza, 25th June 2004). Along with several expressive images of the daily life in the said housing estate, the following fragment of Franciszek Lewicki’s essay (from a 1938 issue of ‘Wiadomości Literackie’ weekly) is quoted there: “At the inlet of Obozowa St., nothing has changed in the last fifty years. The tram stops and goes ahead amidst the same fences and hovels, plunges underneath the railroad trestle behind which, according to the plan, a network of Slavonic streets is meant to begin; it subsequently stops and gets emptied out suddenly. End of the line? I get off following the others, but the tram goes further up. I have stayed in the middle of some unknown broad street. A beautiful lawn, rows of grand and bright blocks-of-flats are fringing on both sides. There are twenty of them. They stand in a long line, their sides turned toward the street, separated by gardens, glistening in the sunshine with the panes of their enormous windows. The inscription on the first floor reads, “ ‘Stefan Żeromski’ workers’ housing estate””.
286 One of my Interlocutors (born 1921, and thus a lot older and more mature, aware of the political contexts of the time), also imprisoned at a camp during the Uprising, member of the People’s Guard (GL) and then, People’s Army (AL), says of his own involvement: “’Cause I was leftist of belief, still before the war, sir. This is what my contacts were like, my colleagues, and so it was. Should I have had colleagues from a different political orientation, then I would’ve sure be sitting [i.e. be member of] the AK [Home Army]. Everybody was doing something, clinging to the first contacts they had, and were doing something. After all, sir, that’s a… // Today, we’re all so wise. But you had to have your life lived.”; account of Zbigniew Dłubak, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_156.
287 Following A. Piotrowski’s concept, one may describe this narrative as rooted ‘in the milieu’ rather than in history (or, theory). See A. Piotrowski, ‘Zakorzenienie w historii (teorii) – zakorzenienie w milieu: analiza dwu odmian narracji’, in Biografia a tożsamość ….
288 Wien-Floridsdorf was one of the numerous camp complexes, focused on manufacture of arms in the last months of the war. The camp was set up in the middle of July 1944, after the inmates were evacuated from the Schwechat-Heidefeld camp bombed by the Allied Forces. Apart from the main camp, the Wien-Floridsdorf complex included the Wien-Hinterbrühl (otherwise named Wien-Mödling) subcamp as well as several working Kommandos: Hofherr & Schrantz, Jedlesee, Santa I, Santa II, Santa III (otherwise named Wien-Schwechat). The Commandant of the entire complex was Anton Streitwieser. The number of inmates in each of those subcamps is undeterminable, the only known fact being that the prisoners in the whole complex totalled 2,737 – mostly, Poles and Russians. 1st April 1945 marked the evacuation of the entire camp to Mauthausen; the death march, ended on 11th April, killed 121 prisoners, with another 22 vanished or fled.
289 Roman Strój misnames the subcamp several times, calling it ‘Methling’; actually, there was no such name. What he means is, most probably, Wien-Mödling. This is coherent with historical studies as well as with the other pieces of information given in this account. Today, Mödling is a small county town within the Vienna agglomeration.
290 In another account, an inmate who, then aged twelve, in the course of the Warsaw Uprising ended up, together with his father, in Mauthausen and subsequently in Gusen, so describes a similar state: “That incessant fear and threat... I was lost in the camp, overwhelmed by all that. During the occupation, I was a rather seasoned child, but when I got into the camp, I felt completely helpless.”; account of Wojciech Topolewski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_021 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).
291 For more on stereotypes in autobiographical narratives, see Z. Bokszański, Stereotypy a kultura, Wrocław 2001, esp. Chapter IV of the monograph – ‘Stereotypes and common ideas of nations and ethnic groups’, pp. 41–54. Further on therein, this author differentiates analytically between the ‘paradigm’ and ‘ideological pattern’ of the alien. I stick herein to ‘stereotype’, as a more general and common notion.
292 The motif of encountering such a caregiver, or guardian, reappears in numerous accounts of prisoners from this group, some of whom recollect a complete organised system of assistance. Here is a fragment of another account, with respect to helping those new to the camp: “There was an organisation in Gusen area, composed of the elder mates who had been serving their camp term for a longer time, and were on [i.e. held] the functions. When those elder prisoners got to know that we were from the Uprising, decided to take care about us. They’d bring us some extra bread, or a bowl of soup. I was helped by a man from Poznań. When he received his parcels, he’d always bring some extra food. I can remember, just before the Christmas, he presented me with one onion, one apple, a piece of gingerbread and a bit of salt so I could rub my gums with, as my teeth were beginning to wobble, scurvy was getting developed.”; account of Lech Milewski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_006 (recorded by Małgorzata Mroczkowska).
293 Both the specific examples of these interactions and attempts at generalising them reappear in several accounts. Here is an example from the neighbouring camp of Wiener Neustadt: “I dealt, mainly, with two of those. One was an engineer. He walked around with the swastika in the lapel, that one scowled at me. Constantly. And, the other one would come over, I don’t know who he was, I think we addressed him ‘foreman’, he always came to take care of that heater. Because, as I’ve mentioned, I worked at the heater where I warmed the rivets and passed [them] forth, then, he’d always bring something along in a dinner-pail, some elevenses for himself, apparently, ’cause he’d bring it in the morning and put it on that heater so it got warmed up for him. Then, he’d always say something, exchange some sentence, rub his hands, and many a time tried to put there a piece of cigarette, or a whole cigarette, but before then he looked around intensely whether no one can see it, naturally implying to me that I can pick it up for myself. I can say that the man was not troubling me, rather quite the contrary.”; account of Michał Fertak, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_019 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).
In some factories, certainly those most strategic ones, the position of foremen was much stronger. Let me quote a fragment of the reminiscence of an ‘old inmate’ of Mittelbau-Dora camp: “There were sixteen thousand people at that time, working in the adits. The winter is on, etc. … So, there was von Braun and there were civilians who worked in the tunnels. They knew how that man was being treated, how that Häftling was treated. And they caused this, so we could be warmed up a bit. They sorted in out in Berlin … that thirty litres of class-four Jamaica rum or thirty litres of Polish vodka was poured into the cauldron of tea, three hundred litres. And this went on to the cans and was passed to the adits, so the people could get warmed up a little. So those labouring beings may still be alive.”; account of Adam Stręk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_054.
294 Exceptions occur in this respect too, where the survivor is aware of a different liberation date than the official one: “[TP:] I went to that factory until May the eight still. [PF:] Until May the fifth, as the liberation was on the fifth. [TP:] The eighth! Eighth of May, Mauthausen. [PF:] No, what the documents say is the fifth. [TP:] But why? What I know is, the eight, in case it comes... // in the documents... // Eighth of May, sir, // all of my lifetime. Maybe they made a mistake there. Eighth of May it was, sir.”; account of Teofil Płonka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_066.
295 This moment offers a good example testifying that narrative interview, even if unrestrained, can also be a dynamic interaction; the postulate that the researcher be withdrawn to the position of (passive) listener ought not to be approached much dogmatically.
296 The distance between Vienna and Mauthausen exceeds 100 km; some of the subcamps were located even further off the central unit.
297 This is true particularly with the earlier period. Here is a fragment of the account of a prisoner who worked at an Auschwitz stable, and was hired for driving: “Later on, I carried corpses as well, the corpses of Ruseks. For, as you might know, Russia hadn’t concluded an agreement on POWs, and they were treated like criminals. A horrible lot. I’m not going to tell you a story about it, in any case, [there were] terrible things that those kapos were doing with the Ruskis. They smashed their mugs with bludgeons, bullying, etc, And I was sitting on the cart, such, horror-stricken. If I rebuked, or something, then they’d thump me up as well. That was in winter, still. And I was carrying those corpses to the crematorium.”; account of Adam Stręk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_054.
This image is also worth juxtaposing with fragments of a video-recorded account, produced as part of an MSDP project, featuring Konstantin Alexandrovich Shilov, a former Russian Mauthausen inmate; fragments thereof are available at the Mauthausen Memorial Site website: http://www.mauthausen-memorial.at/index_open.php.
298 For more on adaptation strategies within total institutions, see E. Goffman, Asylums …, Chapter (essay) I. On the Characteristics of Total Institutions, pp. 1–125.
299 The estimations say that out of some 100,000 victims of Mauthausen, the camp and its subcamps, ca. 45,000 lost their lives between the winter of 1944 and May 1945.
300 What he actually means is the Americans of Polish descent who served with the U.S. units liberating the camp. Those Polish Americans reappear in a number of reports.
301 Some examples of the repressive measures suffered by such former prisoners after their return to the USSR can be found, for instance, in the aforesaid video report by Konstantin A. Shilov; fragments thereof are available on the Mauthausen Memorial Site website: http://www.mauthausen-memorial.org.
302 ‘PRP’ standing for ‘People’s Republic of Poland’ (‘PRL’ in Polish, with its derivative adjectival forms used a great deal) [Transl. note.]. This mental shortcut is worth noting: formally, the PRP/PRL was proclaimed only with the 1952 Constitution.
303 The German city’s name Schweinfurt is formed of two words, Schwein + Furt, literally meaning ‘swine, pig’ and ‘ford’, respectively.
304 This is worth noting, as A. Strauss’s classical concept of trajectory relates it, exactly, with the experience of (a) sickness and dying. Cf. A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 71 ff.
305 For many an inmate – also those youngest, from the Warsaw transports – remaining enclosed after the liberation wherever, including in a transit camp, was mostly a continuation of the ‘abnormal’, rather than a beginning of a ‘normal’, life: “And later, … I think we were together for three days, and at some moment Stefan and Marian went out, got to know that the camp was there: ‘Well, then, let’s go there, shall we’. They’re back then on: ‘Lads, let’s go there, it’s quite all right there’. I said, ‘I’m not going, for God’s sake. I’m not going there, lads, I don’t want to go to any camp, I don’t want to be in a herd, I don’t want that, simply’. And I remained with those two Muselmanns and with that sickly Edek.”; account of Henryk Nowicki, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_018.
306 In fact, all the localities named by the Interlocutor (Regensburg, Würzburg, Lohr, Gießen, Wetzlar, Mannheim) are located relatively close to one another, in central Germany (northern Bavaria and Hessen, northern Baden-Württemberg). Immediately after World War II, they were all covered by the U.S. Occupation Zone. The Americans set up large transit camps for the Displaced Persons (DPs) – former prisoners, coerced labourers, and refugees.
307 The term underlife used in English-language literature is perhaps more suitable here: it is not so much about some ‘other’ life but a ‘subcutaneous’ or ‘underground’ current of the primary life. See: E. Goffman, Asylums …, Chapter (essay) III: ‘The Underlife of a Public Institution: A Study of Making Our in a Mental Hospital’, pp. 171–321.
308 A number of former camp prisoners clearly appreciate the unique character of social relationships and communication codes between them and their former camp mates: “That was, at all, some peculiar experience, incomparable to any other occurrence in the life, a herd of colleagues perished there, and [there is] some, somehow, inner obligation toward those, so, as we meet these colleagues, then you feel no difference, I cannot feel that at all, but all the colleagues, as I can see, but none of financial, intellectual status, education, no – this is simply a mate from the camp. And even many such whom I can’t remember even if in the camp, but the very fact that he’s been through it, that he saw the same things…”; account of Stanisław Leszczyński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_031.
309 It is easy to see the difference between the blurred reminiscences of a work of this sort and the clear and detailed experience of e.g. a teacher, doctor, professor or, perhaps even more so, private entrepreneur (functioning in the circumstances of post-war Poland).
310 “And then von Fritz, the camp’s commandant, came up and said in German: “Whatever you may think, there is only one exit for you: via the crematorium chimney””; account of Bogdan Wnętrzewski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_032 (recorded by Paweł Pięciak).
311 “As we were almost there in Auschwitz, then, as I’m looking, they punched for us those numbers, there, they were setting us ready for the block, as we came up to that block, and there, the block-leader, a Pole, says in Polish, are you aware where you are, this is Auschwitz-Birkenau, it’s a sanatorium, but the way out is through the chimneystack only. That’s how he greeted us. ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Immediately, there.”; account of Stanisław Wochal, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_062.
312 It is worth noting that the similar experiences from before the camp period and from inside the camp may lead to completely differing interpretations of time at the camp: “In the camp, I was imprisoned for 244 days. As they say, this period should be given in minutes or even in seconds, because the prisoner was threatened by death at every single second.”; account of Jan-Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.
313 The actual number of stair-steps, as given in the guides, historical studies, and at the Mauthausen Memorial Site official website, is 186. The prisoners whose narrations are deeper embedded in the context of historical knowledge and collective memory on the camp, refer to this number, as a rule. Some interlocutors mention other numbers in their stories, whilst others only point to this symbol and refer us to sources more certain than their own memory: “Well, and, interestingly, those famous stairs in Mauthausen, ’cause such very famous, that were so enormous, whatever their size, I can’t remember, this is in the archives, then there it’s known... That, our first labour, once we were registered, given the stripped clothing, was the going, everyday going to the quarries, exactly up those notorious stairs, and you had to bring a stone, possibly a large one.”; account of Janusz Bąkowski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_154.
314 As recollected, for instance, by another prisoner from Warsaw, who worked in the quarry at that same time: “On those stairs, I saw corpses only once. These were, I think, Jews who had been shot dead by the Germans, or clubbed to death. Maybe they weren’t strong enough for those stones, were starving.”; account of Zbigniew Dłubak, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_156.
315 “In the evening, after work, a few senior prisoners came to us, among them Edmund Ramotowski, called Wujaszek (‘The Uncle’). ‘Where are you from, boy?’ I replied him. ‘Then, come over to block no. 2.’ ‘Whom am I supposed to address?’ ‘The Uncle’. I went there almost every day. The Uncle gave us emptied soup cauldrons, so we could lick them clean. There were a lot of lads turning up at his place. He cared about us like a father.”; account of Henryk Strzałkowski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_111 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner); cf. also the quote from Lech Milewski’s account in footnote 285, pp. 381-2.
316 “In Gusen, once the news was dispersed that they had brought along the young from the Rising, the senior inmates got a little interested in us. There were some old ones coming up to our block, squeezed in a piece of bread to one, a piece to the other. I got a quarter of a [loaf of] bread too; but I was such a wimp in that camp; I thought to myself, ‘I’d bite a bite off and will keep the rest for myself till tomorrow. I wake up in the morning, and the bread is gone! Someone took it away from under my head. This piece of bread, that was the only time some alien person helped me when in the camp. Some of the mates were lucky enough to have elder prisoners had them under their protection, but I was chosen by no one.”; account of Wojciech Topolewski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_021 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).
317 One former inmate called this a ‘movie scene’; let us quote an extensive fragment of his account: “Because I once walked along that gravel path in Gusen II. This is, that was already in the later months. There was an SS-man coming on the opposite side, the commander of the block, and nothing, // there’s nothing, // I don’t know, this was going on so strange, it was just like a movie scene. ’Cause I’m walking on one side, I walked rather quickly, and the SS-man on the other side, and there are no other prisoners. And we two pass by each other, of course when you walked past, at all, when an SS-man went by, you were supposed to stand at attention, ‘Mütze ab!’ – put off, right?, for it was a ‘god’ walking by. So, I brought all that about, that’s as it should have been, that I plucked off the cap from my head, and he, he did not see me there. But, whooz! He threw, he took two or three drags of a cigarette, a beautiful, large one, and he threw the cigarette at my feet. And, and I went on, didn’t take the cigarette and I walked on, the cap’s back on my block [= head] and I walked on, and I hear, ‘Halt!’. So, I look back, and he, to me, // instead of shooting me dead, he showed me why didn’t I, that cigarette … I’m to walk back and take the cigarette. And so I walked back, and took it. What does that look like psychologically? If I were such a bandit SS-man and threw a cigarette of the sort at such a prisoner’s feet, and that prisoner’s not flinging and not taking the cigarette, then [I] would shoot the bloody bastard dead, for that’s a disparagement, because he made a gesture, tremendously, didn’t he. … Where, where did I disregard such a god. That’s a rather interesting matter, because… … . Well, he went on, I went on, but, but if this is conceivable just like this, at this moment, then it’s a sort of, like, a movie scene, isn’t it?”; account of Janusz Bąkowski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_154.
318 Here is an example of human interaction between an inmate and an SS-man: “And that one calls me, no, that SS-man, tells me to come over: ‘Ah, you’re a Pole’. I say, I don’t know. And says he, ‘Well then, come with me then’. You know, he took me and ushered, as he had a desk in that building-site, to that desk, and there, such an, iron stove: ‘You sit here, and so it doesn’t go out there in the stove’. I’m thinking to myself, what’s the point, why’s it he’s taken me like that there. And, it goes on heating, I’m stoking, it was winter, glad, on the one hand, was I, and curious, on the other hand, what would ensue from it there. You know, sir, and, he, // that was until noon, he’s going to his lunch, and says to me thus: ‘I’m going to my lunch’, and he was an Austrian; ‘and you go get yourself, there’s bread, sausage, some eggs, you’ll make yourself a meal, ’cause I can’t bring things for you’. You think I took it? Didn’t take a thing, because I had fear. Didn’t take a thing. He’s back, saying, ‘So, did you have your meal?’ I’m saying, ‘A little’. He looked awhile, says, ‘You haven’t even tried a thing there’, he says. ‘Get it and make it, and you’ve supposed to eat it’. I ate it”. This Interlocutor goes on recounting how he sew slippers for that SS-man and his family, and how he was rewarded for that: with food, alcohol, money; cf. account of Stanisław Wochal, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_062.
319 This scene, and many alike ones, is readily associable with Philip Zimbardo’s wellknown 1971 Stanford experiment.
320 This is reconfirmed by a number of former inmates’ reports, perceiving the rewir as the place of rescue and respite. Here goes an example: “And I reported there, to a doctor at the ‘district’, and I was all lucky I was received, recognised, for some were not recognised. And if they would not receive there, he’d go to work, fall, then the S[S] -men finished him off, and they’d already bri-... // they already brought corpses to the roll-call, and they’d bring those corpses like this every day, and I was lucky in the way that I was received. And... and I got to the ‘district’ and relaxed somewhat there. That was about nothing else than just not going to the labour.”; account of Józef Bednarczyk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.
321 Let us evoke one more picture of the ‘manor’ as a place that made death unavoidable: “I was fearing, there, bewared I, didn’t want I, I knew they will\ kill off there, ’cause the Germans suspected only sly-old-foxes are goin’ there… … But I, I knew there’s a ‘finisher’ there, for, like this, see?, all were saying that if only to the manor, there’s a finisher.”; account of Antoni Żak, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.
The ambivalent function of the camp hospital has been covered by a.o. A. Pawełczyńska, op. cit., pp. 92–94.
322 The hunger for bread no more needed by a dead person reappears in many an account. For some of the Interlocutors, the way they behave in such a situation is a touchstone of moral devastation the camp had caused in them: “I was lying in a small trough with a dying chap; a Pole was he. I was only interested if he’s going to die after he’s issued his bread or before he’s issued his bread. I was lucky, because he died two hours after our having been issued the afternoon-evening bread. Once he died, then two portions were left over for me, right? Because he first was issued..., and since he died in, y’know... then, there was – nothing doing!, then I still had two portions of bread then. And he was later taken out to the crematorium, regular thing, y’know... [lighting a cigarette]”; account of Stefan Pręgowski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_003.For others, it is a gauge of staying unaffected by such devastation: “Wiktor Sadowski, a friend of mine, got the bloody flux. When I was leaving for work, he remained, laying in a coop in the barrack. I went up to him, embraced him: ‘Well, Wiktor, I’m off to work’. – ‘You’re not going to see me anymore; the crematorium...’. He couldn’t eat any more, and his portion of bread lay beside him. When I was looking at that bread, my hands were trembling, to eat it. For I was hungry; we ate grass, after all... But I didn’t touch that. And I’m saying to myself today that I passed that exam. That was, wasn’t it, my friend. When back, I did not see Wiktor in there anymore. There was no bread either, obviously.”; account of Kazimierz Pieńkos, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_020 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).
323 The theft of bread, evoked here as an ordinary occurrence, appears as an extremely unusual, very rare event in recollections of many former inmates. As a rule, it is associated with an emphasis put on the sanction such an act was threatened with – that is, the penalty of death: “Well, I can remember we were very hungry and I remember, // I should like to say one such interlude, which could have cost me, well, my life, straight away. That I, on entering the latrine, that restroom, of a sort, noticed, in that kapo-booth [kapówka], there was sleeping, you know, that warder [sztubowy] man, // the block-leader, // a piece of bread on the... Well, I couldn’t walk past quietly. Not even for my brother, who was very hungry. And, well, I could see him sleep. And I went in, and stole that bread. And we ate it under the blanket. But then on, as I could see similar cases, then they instantly murdered, kicked black-and-blue at once, // killed, or drowned in a barrel, you know, and that, end of story. I would’ve never done it if I’d had more experience of the sort. But that was my first and, probably, last organisation [i.e. arranging for food, e.g. a piece of bread] of the sort, the plunge I took.”; account of Stanisław Leszczyński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_031.
324 The following fragment is a good exemplification of a completely different experience with ‘ethnically other’ co-inmates: “We were supported, the Poles were supported by parcels, and as I said, neither the Frenchmen, nor the Russians, nor the Spaniards received these parcels. [This was in an earlier period, before 1945.] We helped in a variety of ways. Friendships were emerging. I, for instance, was close friends with the Spaniards, from whom I learned the language and whom I somehow served with my command – the camp command of German. We made friends with the Frenchmen, at least [this is] what I can say about myself. The closest contacts were between me and the Yugoslavians.”; account of Stanisław Dobosiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_014.
325 As regards Polish authors’ references to ‘turning into a Muselmann’ [‘zmuzułmanienie’], the phenomenon is concisely covered by e.g. A. Pawełczyńska, op. cit., pp. 94–97. A penetrating elaboration on the subject-matter, comprising numerous fragments of accounts of saved Muselmanns, has been proposed in: Z. Ryn, S. Kłodziński, ‘Na granicy życia i śmierci. Studium obozowego „muzułmaństwa” ’, Przegląd Lekarski, 1983, no. 1, pp. 27–83.
328 There is no point arguing that moments of this sort were also part of the general experience. For the sake of contrast (and balance too), it is worth however to cite here a fragment from the account of one coerced farm labourer: “They drove us to East Prussia. I was brought to Heilsberg, a small town – that’s German; and in Polish, Lidzbark-Warmiński. And there, one carriage of us. We were told to get off, and there, in that Lidzbark, we were shown into a cinema. I can remembers the seats. And we sat down in those seats, and the Germans came in, one by one, and selected. And me... // I don’t know, something came over me that I’d hide myself under the seat, so, there were the others first that they were selecting, selecting... and that my Bauer noticed it, cam over, and told me to go out of there. And what hurt me the most severely... ’cause there was, a sort of, secretary or clerkess... He brought me to her and took off fifty marks. He paid for me, and signed something. And that was awfully painful for me, the fact I [was purchased] like a slave, for marks. I’m being sold for, precisely, the marks. And well, he brought me there, to that farm of his. He had a nice building there. He had a, sort of.... // must’ve been ten rooms or so, and he told me to spend the nights together with the horses. There was, such a... made up of planks, in the corner, and that also [were] measly conditions, for the floor [was] concrete, of cement, a small barred window... And there was, such a... // made up of planks, like, to sleep on. And it was awfully stinky there. Then, well, the horses, horses were standing opposite, some twenty horses there, and cows were on the other side. And that manure which was there, and all that. You had to breathe that in. Because, the known thing: the enemy, and that’s... The fact he had ten rooms, then he could’ve given one off, exactly, to the Pole. There would’ve been, well, some sleeping, eating, and everything. And there, he... // Well, that’s how he treated the Pole, like some animal.”; account of Tadeusz Brzeczko, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_009 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).
329 “I militated for the banner. I militated too. Later on, other colleagues did too, of course. We have settled that legal personality, sir, together with Wojtek, and with that Heniek Czarnecki, because he’s got an acquaintance, don’t know, in his family, a woman judge. And that we have settled. And some of them, sir, ‘Oh, what do you need that for, ah, that’s no use, is it, how?’, and so on. That, you know, that’s improper, I’d say. When we were making the banner – it cost fifty thousand, fifty million, and there were some three hundred people, after all, incidentally... Then, I gave one million zloty, for I considered it the proper thing to do, because, ultimately, I’m a crafty man with some other things, but there, what do you say?”; account of Henryk Nowicki, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_018.
330 Stanisław Grzesiuk, the already quoted author, writes about it in the epilogue of his camp memoirs Pięć lat kacetu: “May the fifth is a festive day of Gusen-men. Every year, on 5th May, a nationwide friendly meeting of former inmates of the Gusen concentration camp is held, attended by some two hundred people. Colleagues from all over the country come over to spend a few hours together. The celebration always starts at five p.m., which is exactly the time at which the gate was opened. The colleagues who live in Warsaw meet on the fifth of each month at the Bristol café, upstairs. The date and the place are conventional. Whoever is free and willing, comes in on the fixed day, in the evening, always finding a dozen or so mates from Gusen. There have been many concentration camps; still, the inmates of none never united at liberty in the way former Gusen prisoners have.”; p. 394. Grzesiuk does not mention what we otherwise know from one of our Interlocutors: a former Mauthausen prisoner and a prominent activist of former-inmate milieu managed the Bristol for several years.
331 “This is no damages, that’s erroneously written. This is financial assistance for the lost health. Because of damages, everyone should get a pile.”; account of Józef Martynia, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_015.
332 The amounts of benefits offered by Germany and Austria to various groups subject to repression are detailed on the website of the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, the institution responsible for the disbursements in Poland, at: www. fpnp.pl.
333 “For us, the old prisoners, this is a little disappointing. We’ve got it. We first got it for each month of that backbreaking labour, stay in concentration camps, for every day did we get it. Then, I got a rather good money, but what sort of money is that, thirty-six thousand zloty, [as converted] into the old money? … Later on, it chanced that all those who were there six or twelve months, or arrived at the end, all had it equalled. … They were equalised with us. Then, something must be wrong there. And we tacitly bear a grudge, that it is like that.”; account of Adam Stręk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_054.
334 “I want to tell you that I had a dream, of a sort, I’d like to somehow refer to that dream, I’m talking about those ghastly dreams. I had a dream, sir, that I am in the camp. There’s a car standing by the camp’s exit gate. I don’t know if that is Melk; in any case, something of the sort. A tarpaulin, and bread is there. And I went in under that tarpaulin, to that bread, and the car is starting at some moment and passes through the gate, that is, I’m going away beyond the camp’s area and, sir, my fear, not the thing... My fear about that I’ve found myself beyond the camp’s area and once they catch me, they’ll kill me, as simple as that. You know, and the worst thing that in the camp I could maybe survive still, whereas if they catch me out there, then they’ll kill me. And so, sir, the waking up from such a dream – you felt almost happy.”; account of Jan Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.
335 “You mind that, sir, well, mister Piotrek, I’ll, well, give you a simple example. I am somewhere, I was travelling, I travelled with my boys: on a canoeing tour, to the Tatras, because we wander across Tatra Mountains. And I forgot, you know, to warn the people: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, as I would, in case, be screaming, then, whoever[’s] close to where I am, please wake yourself up, please don’t you get scared’. I just forgot to do it, sir – and the company was so good, we played bridge later on, I was there with my younger son. I slept downstairs, and my son, upstairs. But sir, when I’m bawling, it’s, you know, as if I were being murdered, literally.”; account of Henryk Nowicki, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_018.