I, Odilo Unverdorben, arrived in Auschwitz Central somewhat precipitately and by motorbike, with a wide twirl or frill of slush and mud, shortly after the Bolsheviks had entrained their ignoble withdrawal. Now. Was there a secret passenger on the back seat of the bike, or in some imaginary sidecar? No. I was one. I was also in full uniform. Beyond the southern boundary of the Lager, in a roofless barn, I slipped out of our coarse travelling clothes and emotionally donned the black boots, the white coat, the fleece-lined jacket, the peaked cap, the pistol. The motorbike I found earlier, wedged into a ditch. Oh how I soared out of there, with what vaulting eagerness, what daring… Now I straddled this heavy machine and revved with jerked gauntlet. Auschwitz lay around me, miles and miles of it, like a somersaulted Vatican. Human life was all ripped and torn. But I was one now, fused for a preternatural purpose.
Your shoulder blades still jolted to the artillery of the Russians as they scurried eastward. What had they done here? Done something as an animal does: just finds it’s gone ahead and done it. I reacted on impulse. To tell the truth, I was in less than perfect control of myself. I started shouting (they sounded like shouts of pain and rage). And at whom? At these coat hangers and violin bows, at these aitches and queries and crawling double-U’s, ranked like tabloid expletives? I marched; I marched, shouting, over the bridge and across all the railway tracks and into the birch wood – into the place I would come to know as Birkenau. After a short and furious rest in the potato store I entered the women’s hospital, inflexibly determined on an inspection. It was not appropriate. I see that now (it was a swoon of where-to-begin?). My arrival only deepened the stupefaction of the few orderlies, never mind the patients, sprawled two or three to a straw sack and still well short of the size of a woman. And rats as big as cats! I was astonished by the power with which my German crashed out of me, as if in millennial anger at having been silenced for so long. In the washroom another deracinating spectacle: marks and pfennigs – good tender – stuck to the wall with human ordure. A mistake: a mistake. What is the meaning of this? Ordure, ordure everywhere. Even on my return through the ward, past ulcer and edema, past sleepwalker and sleeptalker, I could feel the hungry suck of it on the soles of my black boots. Outside: everywhere. This stuff, this human stuff, at normal times (and in civilized locales) tastefully confined to the tubes and runnels, subterranean, unseen – this stuff had burst its banks, surging outward and upward on to the floor, the walls, the very ceiling of life. Naturally, I didn’t immediately see the logic and justice of it. I didn’t immediately see this: that now human shit is out in the open, we’ll get a chance to find out what this stuff can really do.
That first morning I was served a rudimentary breakfast in the Officers’ Home. I felt quite calm, though I could neither eat nor drink. With my ham and cheese, which were not of my making, they brought me iced seltzer. There was only one other officer present. I was keen to exercise my German, but we didn’t speak. He held his coffee cup as a woman does, with both palms curled around it, for the warmth; and you could hear the china tapping its morse against his teeth. On several occasions he stood up with some serenity and went to the bathroom, and dived back in again gracelessly scrabbling at his belt. This, I soon saw, was a kind of acclimatization. For the first few weeks I was seldom off the toilet bowl myself.
My utterly silent cubicle has a shallow orange bath mat on the floor beside the bed. To welcome the faint dampness of my German feet, as I turn in. To welcome the faint dampness of my German feet, as I rise.
During week two the camp started filling up. In dribs and drabs, at first, then in flocks and herds. All this I watched through a spyhole, under a workbench in a disused supply hut towards the birch wood, with blanket, kümmel bottle – and rosary, fingered like an abacus, as I counted them in. I realized I had seen a few of these same processions on my way north through eastern Czechoslovakia, in Gottwaldor and in Ostrava. The hearty trek and the bracing temperatures had obviously done the men good, though their condition, on arrival, still left much to be desired. And there weren’t enough of them. As in a dream one was harrowed by questions of scale, by impenetrable disparities. In their hundreds, even in their thousands, these stragglers could never fill the gaping universe of the Kat-Zet. Another source, another powerhouse, was desperately needed… The short days were half over by the time I ventured from the hut (where my motorbike was also preserved. I kept examining it in a fond fever). The officers’ club room was busier now, and there were always new arrivals. It felt strange – no, it felt right that we should all know each other, as it were automatically: we, who had gathered here for a preternatural purpose. My German worked like a dream, like a brilliant robot you switch on and stand back and admire as it does all the hard work. Courage was arriving too, in uniformed human units, the numbers and the special daring adequate to the task we faced. How handsome men are. I mean their shoulders, their tremendous necks. By the end of the second week our clubhouse was the scene of strident song and bold laughter. One night, bumping into the doorway, and stepping over a somnolent colleague, I made my way out into the sleet, the toilets all being occupied, and as I crouched, steadying my cheeks against the cold planks, I peered through the reeking shadows of Auschwitz and saw that the nearest ruins were fuming more than ever and had even begun to glow. There was a new smell in the air. The sweet smell.
We needed magic, to resolve significance from what surrounded us, which scarcely permitted contemplation: we needed someone godlike – someone who could turn this world around. And in due course he came… Not a tall man, but of the usual dimensions; coldly beautiful, true, with self-delighted eyes; graceful, chasteningly graceful in his athletic authority; and a doctor. Yes, a simple doctor. It was quite an entrance, I don’t mind telling you. Flashing through the birch wood came the white Mercedes-Benz, from which he leapt in his greatcoat and then dashed across the yard yelling out orders. I knew his name, and murmured it as I looked on from the supply hut, with my schnapps and my toilet paper: ‘Uncle Pepi’. The trash and wreckage before him was now shivering with fire as he stood, hands on hips, watching all his powers gather in the smoke. I turned slowly away and felt the rush and zip of violently animated matter. When, with a shout, I jerked my eye back to its hole there was no smoke anywhere, only the necessary building, perfect, even to the irises and the low picket fence that lined its path, before which ‘Uncle Pepi’ now stood, with one arm crooked and raised. Even to the large sign above the door: brausebad. ‘Sprinkleroom,’ I whispered, with a reverent snort. But now ‘Uncle Pepi’ moved on. That morning, as I lay with my teeth chattering in anticipation on the wooden floor of the supply hut, I heard five more explosions. Velocity and fusion sucking up the shocked air. By the next day we were ready to go to work.
What tells me that this is right? What tells me that all the rest was wrong? Certainly not my aesthetic sense. I would never claim that Auschwitz–Birkenau–Monowitz was good to look at. Or to listen to, or to smell, or to taste, or to touch. There was, among my colleagues there, a general though desultory quest for greater elegance. I can understand that word, and all its yearning: elegant. Not for its elegance did I come to love the evening sky, hellish red with the gathering souls. Creation is easy. Also ugly. Hier ist kein warum. Here there is no why. Here there is no when, no how, no where. Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with shit, with fire.
I or a doctor of equivalent rank was present at every stage in the sequence. One did not need to know why the ovens were so ugly, so very ugly. A tragically burly insect eight feet tall and made out of rust. Who would want to cook with an oven such as this? Pulleys, plungers, grates and vents were the organs of the machine… The patients, still dead, were delivered out on a stretcher-like apparatus. The air felt thick and warped with the magnetic heat of creation. Thence to the Chamber, where the bodies were stacked carefully and, in my view, counter-intuitively, with babies and children at the base of the pile, then the women and the elderly, and then the men. It was my stubborn belief that it would be better the other way round, because the little ones surely risked injury under that press of naked weight. But it worked. Sometimes, my face rippling peculiarly with smiles and frowns, I would monitor proceedings through the viewing slit. There was usually a long wait while the gas was invisibly introduced by the ventilation grilles. Dead bodies have their dead body language. It says nothing. The dead look so dead. I always felt a gorgeous relief at the moment of the first stirring. Then it was ugly again. Well, we cry and twist and are naked at both ends of life. We cry at both ends of life, while the doctor watches. It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat. Next, the facade of the Sprinkleroom, the function of whose spouts and nozzles (and numbered seats and wardrobe tickets, and signs in six or seven languages) was merely to reassure and not, alas, to cleanse; and the garden path beyond.
Clothes, spectacles, hair, spinal braces and so on – these came later. Entirely intelligibly, though, to prevent needless suffering, the dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive. The kapos would go at it, crudely but effectively, with knives or chisels or any tool that came to hand. Most of the gold we used, of course, came direct from the Reichsbank. But every German present, even the humblest, gave willingly of his own store – I more than any other officer save ‘Uncle Pepi’ himself. I knew my gold had a sacred efficacy. All those years I amassed it, and polished it with my mind: for the Jews’ teeth. The bulk of the clothes was contributed by the Reich Youth Leadership. Hair for the Jews came courtesy of Filzfabrik A. G. of Roth, near Nuremburg. Freight cars full of it. Freight car after freight car.
At this point, notwithstanding, I should like to log one of several possible caveats or reservations. In the Sprinkleroom the patients eventually get dressed in the clothes provided, which, though seldom very clean, are at least always pertinently cut. Here, the guards have a habit of touching the women. Sometimes – certainly – to bestow a jewel, a ring, a small valuable. But at other times quite gratuitously. Oh, I think they mean well enough. It is done in the irrepressible German manner: coltishly, and with lit face. And they only do it to the angry ones. And it definitely has the effect of calming them down. One touch, there, and they go all numb and blocked, like the others. (Who wail sometimes. Who stare at us with incredulous scorn. But I understand their condition. I’m sympathetic; I accept all that.) It may be symbolic, this touching of the women. Life and love must go on. Life and love must emphatically and resonantly go on: here, that’s what we’re all about. Yet there is a patina of cruelty, intense cruelty, as if creation corrupts… I don’t want to touch the girls’ bodies. As is well known, I frown on such harassment. I don’t even want to look at them. The bald girls with their enormous eyes. Just made, and all raw from their genesis. I’m a little worried by it: I mean, this fastidiousness is so out of character. The delicacy of the situation, with their parents and often their grandparents there and everything (as in a thwarted erotic dream), would hardly explain the lack of visual stimulation; and I get on like a house on fire with the girls in the officers’ bordello. No. I think it must have something to do with my wife.
The overwhelming majority of the women, the children and the elderly we process with gas and fire. The men, of course, as is right, walk a different path to recovery. Arbeit Macht Frei says the sign on the gate, with typically gruff and undesigning eloquence. The men work for their freedom. There they go now, in the autumn dusk, the male patients in their light pajamas, while the band plays. They march in ranks of five, in their wooden clogs. Look. There’s a thing they do, with their heads. They bend their heads right back until their faces are entirely open to the sky. I’ve tried it. I try to do it, and I can’t. There’s this fist of flesh at the base of my neck, which the men don’t yet have. The men come here awful thin. You can’t get a stethoscope to them. The bell bridges on their ribs. Their hearts sound far away.
There they go, to the day’s work, with their heads bent back. I was puzzled at first but now I know why they do it, why they stretch their throats like that. They are looking for the souls of their mothers and their fathers, their women and their children, gathering in the heavens – awaiting human form, and union… The sky above the Vistula is full of stars. I can see them now. They no longer hurt my eyes.
These familial unions and arranged marriages, known as selections on the ramp, were the regular highpoints of the Kat-Zet routine. It is a commonplace to say that the triumph of Auschwitz was essentially organizational: we found the sacred fire that hides in the human heart – and built an autobahn that went there. But how to explain the divine synchronies of the ramp? At the very moment that the weak and young and old were brought from the Sprinkleroom to the railway station, as good as new, so their menfolk completed the appointed term of labour service and ventured forth to claim them, on the ramp, a trifle dishevelled to be sure, but strong and sleek from their regime of hard work and strict diet. As matchmakers, we didn’t know the meaning of the word failure; on the ramp, stunning successes were as cheap as spit. When the families coalesced, how their hands and eyes would plead for one another, under our indulgent gaze. We toasted them far into the night. One guard, his knees bent and swaying, played an accordion. Actually we all drank like fiends. The stag party on the ramp, and the kapos, like the groom’s best friends shoving the man into the waiting cart – freshly sprayed with trash and shit – for the journey home.
The Auschwitz universe, it has to be allowed, was fiercely copracentric. It was made of shit. In the early months I still had my natural aversion to overcome, before I understood the fundamental strangeness of the process of fruition. Enlightenment was urged on me the day I saw the old Jew float to the surface of the deep latrine, how he splashed and struggled into life, and was hoisted out by the jubilant guards, his clothes cleansed by the mire. Then they put his beard back on. I also found it salutary to watch the Scheissekommando about its work. This team had the job of replenishing the ditches from the soil wagon, not with buckets or anything like that but with flat wooden spades. In fact a great many of the camp’s labour programmes were quite clearly unproductive. They weren’t destructive either. Fill that hole. Dig it up again. Shift that. Then shift it back. Therapy was the order of the day… The Scheissekommando was made up of our most cultured patients: academics, rabbis, writers, philosophers. As they worked, they sang arias, and whistled scraps of symphonies, and recited poetry, and talked about Heine, and Schiller, and Goethe… In the officers’ club, when we are drinking (which we nearly always are), and where shit is constantly mentioned and invoked, we sometimes refer to Auschwitz as Anus Mundi. And I can think of no finer tribute than that.
I have started corresponding with my wife, whose name is Maria. Maria’s letters come, not from the fire (das Feuer), but from the trash (der Plunder). And they are in German. My letters to Maria are brought to me by the valet. I laboriously erase them, here, at night, in the silent room. I am left with nice sheets of white paper. But what for? My letters are in German too, though they contain gobbets of English which are playfully pedagogic in tone. I think it makes sense that Maria and I should get to know each other in this way. We’re pen pals.
It seems that my wife has already conceived her doubts about the work we are doing here.
‘Uncle Pepi’ was everywhere. This being the thing that was most often said about him. For instance, ‘It’s as if he’s everywhere,’ or ‘The man seems to be everywhere,’ or, more simply, ‘“Uncle Pepi” is everywhere.’ Omnipresence was only one of several attributes that tipped him over into the realm of the superhuman: he was also fantastically clean, for Auschwitz; when he was present, and he was present everywhere, I could sense the various cuts and nicks on my queasy jawline, my short but disobedient hair, the unhappy hang of my uniform, my lustreless black boots. His face was feline in shape, wide at the temples, and his blink was as slow as any cat’s. On the ramp he cut a frankly glamorous figure, where he moved like a series of elegant decisions. You felt that he was only playing the part of a human being. Self-isolated as he was, ‘Uncle Pepi’ none the less displayed the best kind of condescension, and was in fact unusually collegial – not so much with youngsters like myself, of course, but with more senior medical figures, like Thilo and Wirths. I was moreover privileged – and on something like a regular basis – to assist ‘Uncle Pepi’ in Room 1 on Block 20, and later in Block 10 itself.
I recognized Room 1 from my dreams. The pink rubber apron on its hook, the instrument bowls and thermoses, the bloody cotton, the half-pint hypodermic with its foot-long needle. This is the room, I had thought, where something mortal would be miserably decided. But dreams are playful, and love to tease and poke fun at the truth… Already showing signs of life, patients were brought in one by one from the pile next door and wedged on to the chair in Room 1, which looked like what it was, a laboratory in the Hygienic Institute, a world of bubbles and bottles. With the syringe there were two ways to go, intravenous and cardiac, ‘Uncle Pepi’ tending to champion the latter as more efficient and humane. We did both. Cardiac: the patient blindfolded with a towel, his right hand placed in the mouth to stifle his own whimpers, the needle eased in to the dramatic trough of the fifth rib space. Intravenous: the patient with his forearm on the support table, the rubber tourniquet, the visible vein, the needle, the judicious dab of alcohol. ‘Uncle Pepi’ was then sometimes obliged to bring them to their senses with a few slaps about the face. The corpses were pink and blue-bruised. Death was pink but yellowish, and contained in a glass cylinder labelled phenol. A day of that and you stroll out in your white coat and black boots, with the familiar headache and the plangent perfecto and the breakfast tannic gathering in your throat, and the eastward sky looked like phenol.
He led. We followed. Phenol work became absolutely routine. All of us did it the whole time. It wasn’t until later that I saw what ‘Uncle Pepi’ was capable of, in Block 10.
My wife Maria paid her first visit to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, which was perhaps unfortunate: we were then doing the Hungarian Jews, and at an incredible rate, something like 10,000 a day. Unfortunate, because I was on ramp duty practically every night, finding the work somewhat impersonal too, the selections now being made by loudspeaker (such was the weight of the traffic), and having little to do but stand there drinking and shouting with my colleagues – thus denying Maria the kind of undivided attention that every young wife craves… Wait. Let me go at this another way.
Everything was ready for her. With typical sensitivity, Dr Wirths had made available the annex of his own living quarters – a delightful apartment (with its own kitchen and bathroom) beyond whose patterned lace curtains stood a high white fence. Beyond that, unseen, the benign cacophony of the Lager. I had been sitting on the sofa, quietly weeping; but I stood to attention when I heard the staff car approach, and walked out briskly to the little front garden. What did I expect? The usual awkwardness, I suppose. Reproaches, accusations, sadness – perhaps obscenities, even feeble blows from feeble fists. All to be at least partly resolved, that same night, in the act of love. That’s how these things usually begin. What I didn’t expect was the truth. The truth was the last thing I was ready for. I should have known. The world, after all, here in Auschwitz, has a new habit of making sense.
The driver looked on solemnly as she alighted from the staff car and started down the path. Then she turned to confront me. She looked nothing like her photograph. There was no vigour or certainty in her face.
‘I don’t know you,’ she said. Kennen: know, be acquainted with.
‘Please,’ I said.
‘You are a stranger to me.’ Fremder: stranger.
‘Please,’ I said. ‘My darling.’ Bitte. Liebling.
Maria kept her head dipped as I helped her off with her coat. And something enveloped me, something that was all ready for my measurements, like a suit or a uniform, over and above what I wore, and lined with grief. I felt it tighten around me.
With the war going so well now, and with the slight decline in the workload after the feats of ’44, and with the general burgeoning of confidence and well-being, why, the camp doctor is agreeably surprised to find the time and leisure to pursue his hobbies. The Soviet trogs have been driven back into their frozen potholes: the camp doctor steadies his monocle and reaches for his mustiest textbook. Or his binoculars and shooting stick. Whatever. Depending on natural bent. Winter was cold but autumn is come – the stubble fields, and so on. The simpering Vistula. In one of her baffling letters Maria goes so far as to question the legality of the work we are doing here! Well. Let me see… I suppose you could say that there are one or two ‘grey areas’. Block 11, the Black Wall, the measures of the Political Unit: these excite some controversy. And, should a patient take matters into his own hands, with the electric fence for example, there’s certainly no end of a palaver. We all hate that… I am famed for my quiet dedication. The other doctors disappear for weeks at a stretch; but in the summer air of the Kat-Zet I have no need of Sommerfrische. I do love the feel of the sun on my face, it’s true. ‘Uncle Pepi’ has really surpassed himself with his new laboratory: the marble table, the nickel taps, the porcelain sinks. Provincial: that’s the word for Maria. You know, of course, that she doesn’t even shave her legs? The armpit question will remain eternally arguable, but the legs, surely, the legs… In this new lab of his he can knock together a human being out of the unlikeliest odds and ends. On his desk he had a box full of eyes. It was not uncommon to see him slipping out of his darkroom carrying a head partly wrapped in an old newspaper. Extra bones and brains were sent to him from Berlin, where Maria lives. The next thing you knew, there’d be, oh, I don’t know, a fifteen-year-old Pole sliding off the table and sauntering back to work, accompanied by an orderly and his easy-going smile. It would be criminal – it would be criminal to neglect the opportunity which Auschwitz affords for the furtherance… I see him at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz, on the day that the gypsy camp was established, personally ferrying the children from the central hospital. The gypsy camp, its rosy pinks, its dirty prettiness. ‘“Uncle Pepi”! “Uncle Pepi”!’ the children cried. When was that? When did we do the gypsy camp? Before the Czech family camp? Yes. Oh, long ago. Maria came again. Her second visit could not be accounted a success, though we were much more intimate than before, and wept a lot together about the baby. As to the so-called ‘experimental’ operations of ‘Uncle Pepi’: he had a success rate that approached – and quite possibly attained – 100 per cent. A shockingly inflamed eyeball at once rectified by a single injection. Innumerable ovaries and testes seamlessly grafted into place. We can make another baby, Maria and I. If I wept copiously both before and after, she let me do it, or try it, but I am impotent and don’t even go to the whore any more. I have no power. I have no power. ‘Uncle Pepi’ never left any scars. You know, it isn’t all sweetness and light here, not by any manner of means. Some of the patients were doctors, and it wasn’t long before they were up to their old tricks. I am prominent in the campaign against this scum. The baby will be here soon and I feel very concerned. ‘Uncle Pepi’ is right: I do need a holiday. But my visit to Berlin for the funeral is mercifully brief: the drizzling parquetry of the streets, the shoplights like the valves of an old radio, the drenched churchyard, the skin and weight problems of the young cleric, Maria’s parents, Maria’s hideous face. There is a war on, I keep telling everyone. We are in the front line. What are we fighting? Phenol? On my return from Berlin to the light and space of Auschwitz what should await me but a telegram. The baby is very weak, and I should come at once, and the doctors have done all they can. The casket was about 15″ by 20″. But I am fighting the phenol war, and thanklessly. No one shows me any gratitude. I seem to have developed a respiratory difficulty – stress asthma, perhaps – particularly when I am shouting. In the Sprinkleroom, when the guards touch the girls, and I repeatedly register my objections, the men mime the playing of violins. They think, because I am a husband and father, that I have become sentimental. I long to see my little Eva, of course, but the present situation is counterindicative. I have stopped going to the bordello but at least I now know why I went there: for the gratitude. Those patient–doctors are getting quite out of hand. They make me choke with rage. For some reason they show a special zeal in interfering with the children; how wanton and gratuitous this interference feels, when you consider that the children, after all, won’t be around for very long. I am not in it for the gratitude. I am in it – if you want a why – because I love the human body and all living things. It isn’t just phenol, not any more. In that sense the war front has widened. It is a war on death that comes in many forms. As well as phenol we now extract prussic acid and sodium evipan. You sense a rushing eagerness when completion is near and there are souls still stacked like desperate aeroplanes circling above an airport. Some exceptions should be duly noted: an old man hugging and kissing my black boots; a child clinging to me as I held her down for ‘Uncle Pepi’. But not once did I receive what might be described as sober and reasoned thanks. I am not complaining. But it would have been nice. As well as prussic acid and sodium evipan we now extract benzene, gasoline, kerosene and air. Yes, air! Human beings want to be alive. They are dying to be alive. Twenty cc’s of air – of nothing – is all you need to make the difference. So nobody thanks me as, with a hypodermic almost the size of a trombone and my right foot firmly stamped on the patient’s chest, I continue to prosecute the war against air.
Photograph © qrgwip