An excerpt from Returning
Ovadya ben Malka writes of attempts of the Sonderkommando to get word out about what was happening in Birkenau. “These are my heroes,” he writes. “Not those who take up arms against the Germans in a hopeless battle, but those who take up words against the silence. Having seen just how totally the silence covers us—how hard it is to try to break this isolation from our people and our humanity—those who tell have become my real heroes. I have fought that battle myself and have gained very little ground.”
It was an obsession with us [in the Sonderkommando], to leave a record. A number of people took charge of a special project to get word out—to leave a record. It was clear that no one would survive to tell what happened here. Would anyone ever want to know what had happened to the Jewish people? Perhaps not. In which case, the writing would serve as an indictment of all of humanity.
This project was carried out by different people at different times, but it was not done haphazardly. Many knew about it, even though there was a need for great secrecy. Paper and writing materials need to be organized. Containers must be found. And then there is the problem of sealing them in such a way that no moisture can get in. This is important because the ground here is very wet. The place is built over a bog. If you dig down a bit, you inevitably strike water, but it is not drinkable. We soak rags in machine oil and put them across the top of the jars. I don’t know how well this will work in the long run.
Many contribute to all of this but only a few write, and only a few are supposed to know the location of the containers. But actually this is more widely known than it should be, because often they have to be moved around.
And that is how I came to know of the project; one day a senior member of the SK ran up to us as we emptied the containers of ground-up bone into one of the ash pits. He was very agitated, but made us understand that we must dig out one of the storage pits immediately and transfer anything that was not ash to a special hiding place. Anything not ash? What could it mean? When we came upon some jars buried among the ashes, I understood.
Later I helped to supply bits of cloth which I soaked in oil from the machine room. It was very clear what was going on.
But only a few write. One of these is the Dayan. I remember him best of all because he was kind to me during those first few days. I also remember some things he said, despite the language barrier. While memory is often painful, the gaps in memory are painful in a different way. So much is lost. I am glad that some memory of him and a few others is preserved in me. I am like those buried jars. The memory is buried inside and surfaces in an unpredictable manner. Some is blurred by time or willful forgetting. Some of it is as clear as if no time has passed. And sometimes it is not past at all, but present….
One night, I came downstairs and found a man sitting alone on a bench in the auskleideraum with silent tears rolling down his face. It seemed like something outside of nature—that someone here could weep like that! For most of us, there were no more tears to cry. This isn’t something that I can explain. Just that the tears are no longer there.
It is ironic that the Germans made such a business of isolating us from the rest. They needn’t have bothered. We were isolated even from ourselves. We become very cut off from everything and everyone. We cease to be human. We think, how is it that I can see all this and not feel anything at all? What kind of human being can be like this? A decent person would at least be able to weep.
But he was the only man there who I ever saw weep. His name was Zalman Gradowski. It was he who organized the effort to get word out about what was happening. He had people write what they saw and did. He retrieved scraps of other people’s journals from the fire. He worked to ensure they were preserved in jars and got people to filch paper for writing and cloth to seal the jars.
He also ordered that teeth be scattered all over the Zone. Yes, teeth. He reasoned that the Germans could get rid of every scrap of ash and bone, but that they could never retrieve all those teeth. If anyone should ever come to that place, he would find thousands of teeth scattered around an area of nearly 400 square meters, and would know that this was done on purpose, and that something terrible had happened there. Even if no one survived to tell, he had ensured that someday it would be known.
But for me, his greatness was in his tears. He remained human.
These are my heroes… Not those who take up arms against the Germans in a hopeless battle, but those who take up words against the silence. Having seen just how totally the silence covers us—how hard it is to try to break this isolation from our people and our humanity—those who tell have become my heroes. I have fought that battle myself and have gained very little ground.
I sat down to write this more than two hours ago but I don’t remember the time passing. The past is full of holes. Remembering the past makes holes in the present as well.
I promised to tell. Took risks to help get word out. So much effort to get the story out and for nothing. Just don’t want to leave it until too late. There is despair in remembering and more despair in silence.