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.


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Sitting on Top of the World