As a military couple, my parents regularly welcomed newcomers to dinner. Their Navy tours instilled a duty and a delight in paying forward the hospitality that had been extended to them. Circa 1979 there was a dinner much like any other: jello mold on the buffet; table set with the “good china.” Cocktails and “jezebel sauce” – chutney over cream cheese – with crackers would have started the evening. Nothing much to see here until one of the guests asserted that the Holocaust might not have happened; after all there was no definitive proof. Sixteen-year-old me looked up from the peas with pearl onions I was rearranging on my plate wondering what would happen next.
Unlike my children, my late 1970’s education did not deal extensively with the Holocaust. The National Holocaust Museum did not exist. No on-line archives were available to explore. In school, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and remember imagining the adventure and the terror of living in such a small, secretive space. I suppose there were school essays and tests. But besides Anne’s writings to Kitty, there is little specific instruction that I recall. Yet the Holocaust was an accepted fact, not dwelled upon perhaps, but irrefutable. When a comment to the contrary came across the white linen covered dining table in 1979, the air was electric.
My mother inhaled and narrowed her eyes: “Oh yes there is evidence.” When my mother began a sentence with “Oh yes there is…” her volatile temper was not far behind. My dad and I braced as the guest began to argue back. She cut him off. “I knew someone who was medic at one of those camps. He wrote to me about what he saw there. It was terrible. No one should say that it didn’t happen.” And knowing how strident my mother could become, my ever-diplomatic father offered more wine and deftly changed the subject. My mother obliged, maintaining dinner table decorum, but withdrew, angry in the present or perhaps, transported to the past.
I asked my mother about the letters while I snuffed out the candles and cleared the dinner plates. We looked for them, first in her special locked iron box and next in a crumbly leather folio, but there were no letters. She told me there were pages and pages that described the concentration camp in detail. “Just awful,” she said. About the letter writer, she said little. I assumed he was someone she knew from childhood. “No. He was someone I met somewhere else.”
Before her death, my mother had sorted through the papers and mementos she’d kept through the years making choices, I think, about what I would be left to find. “Margaret, 22 years” is inscribed on the back of a faded photograph I found last summer in a scrap book I almost threw out. Climbing rocks in a western landscape, this young version of my mother was living in California before college. Here’s her secretarial certificate. A telegram saying that a childhood friend was killed in Europe. Newspapers with WWII headlines, ration cards, and a saved calendar page dated August 14, 1945 with her handwriting, “Japan's surrender to allies.” Name cards from young men. Lieutenant. Flight Officer. Major. She met them at the USO dances that came with instruction sheets: “You are doing a patriotic service by attending. You must dance with everyone even if the young man is not a good dancer. No bobby socks.” To keep or throw out? I took one last pass. Did I somehow know there was something there, not yet discovered? Tucked in a hidden pocket, underneath a taped-in community theater program was a gray envelope, ripped open on the side. Inside a letter meticulously written, with roman numerals atop each of its eight translucent pages. I removed it, goosebumps rising, and began to read once by myself and then I called my older son. Sitting at the kitchen table, we sat close together his younger eyes, and his sweet girlfriend’s, helping to decipher the tiny script.
13 May 1945
Five letters from you in the last few days. There has been an uncertainty in every hour and a fevered push of tasks that seems to alienate all one’s warmer emotions- leaving a mechanical unfeeling central core that just goes on – I need to ask the day and the date- for it all runs into one semi-conscious morass…
Darling Margaret! My son and I smiled at the thought of his loving but exacting grandmother as someone’s darling. The return address – a wartime military address in New York from someone with the rank of Major. On page II, the writer states that he is now allowed to tell her that he is in a concentration camp as the chief medic. We look up the camp, Mauthausen. A quick Wikipedia search describes the camp as among the worst of the labor camps versus the six camps where extermination was the sole purpose. On-line we find grainy black and white photographs of rail thin people climbing an impossibly high hill. This was the letter she had talked about so long ago. We turned the page like a sacred text and kept reading.
…This camp lies on a bluff 300 feet above the Danube 18 miles below Linz. The ridge with the Bavarian alps to the south are seen from my window and a glance down shows rows of wooden barnlike buildings where some of the unbelievable cruelty of those German bandits was practiced.
“Bandits” seems like such a tame word to me now, all bugs bunny and children’s books. But the writer saw it differently. The juxtaposition between an alpine view and what he knew happened in the buildings below must have been jarring. An oral history I found said over and over that the young soldiers, with little access to news, had no idea of what they were walking into as they entered concentration camps. "We weren't prepared," the interviewee kept saying. How could anyone be?
Mauthausen was built to house 4000 humans with a minimum of space. When we rolled in here 19000 were jammed behind its electrified wires.
We breathe deeply even as my teeth clinch. I quickly calculate the discrepancy between 19000 and 4000 – 15000 more people – about the size of my undergraduate college – stuffed into this space.
Although the camp had a fine water system no one drank except the trickle he could steal – no one bathed in the bountiful tile showers housed below the main camp – the sewers were allowed to dry and the filth to accumulate. A modern library allowed no one to read – and a beautiful, turfed field marked “exercise platz” on the map was forbidden to see feet and the kitchens record a hideous mess of beet and potato skins that looked like worms in mud.
My son and I notice the dark poetry in this soldier’s prose developing an admiration for this man we never knew, someone willing to face the very worst and yet write with depth recognizing the injury to dignity and humanity in what he was seeing.
The people crawled 169 steps carrying rocks from the quarry in which they worked and at every faltering were pushed down its steep incline to die. Eighty American soldiers brought here were made to carry 200-pound loads...
There are three crematoriums and a gas chamber. I inspected the whole mechanism and talked with the men who were forced to carry the bodies from the gas chamber to the furnace – after the gold teeth were removed from the mouths.
Tears begin to flow from my 20-year-old son’s wide eyes. I put my hand on his back and lean my head on his shoulder.
You see a huge excavation where 16000 Jewish bodies were exhumed. 140,000 people were murdered in this camp during its existence. They had the names of 76,000 of them and will calesteo(?) date on the unknown groups. It is incomprehensible but there it is.
We take a break for a moment, not saying much, just breathing and then press on through the letter’s difficult terrain.
There are 500 young Jewesses here who had been transported like cattle in box cars from all the special bordellos set up in camps for the SS. All of them had been sterilized in one of the experimental surgical stations.
Nausea rises as I imagine a scene I wish I could unsee.
There is a breed of special monsters in this country which should be hunted like rats and killed. If the court we set up does not do it there will be men arise who will. And I’m wagering they will be, one at a time thru the years, quietly, and violently executed. We should keep these people from the necessity of doing it in this way.
Amazing that some of those criminals are still uncovered from time to time long after Nuremberg, although a colleague tells me, we lost the will to “hunt them down” very quickly for reasons having to do with the changing alliances of the Cold War.
The letter continues describing how the hospital is taking shape and his personal circumstances. He concludes with affectionate, somewhat suggestive words, that prompt me to stop reading with my son advising that we “let grandmama have her privacy.” We laugh but are also bit over come with the heaviness of this history and our now personal connection to it. Who did my mother talk to when she received the letter? Oddly, I wanted to talk to everyone I knew after I read it. People thought it interesting, but it did not have the same pull it has for me.
How much did my mother, “darling Margaret” –21-years-old in May of 1945 - know about what went in the concentration camps? I did a search of front pages of the New York Times from April to August of 1945. Only one headline referenced “labor camps”. Did she doubt him, think perhaps he had become mentally unsound, or believe what she read unconditionally? Oddly, with only the scrapbook and perhaps an unspoken dimension of our 1979 conversation to go on, I think I know the answer. In the scrapbook there are pictures. In this one he smokes a pipe. In the next one he looks at my mother as everyone wants their beloved to look at them, and in others she reclines on the grass laughing at the enamored photographer. Another internet search and I find him, now dead, but with pictures that show that young man grown old having lived a good and noble life. Nothing mentions his experiences in Mauthausen. Did he tell others what he saw? So many men of his generation kept their knowledge hidden deep. Yet, my mother knew because he entrusted her with something raw and real, a truth she would keep safe and defend at a dinner table years later, that she would pass on to a daughter, who would read it with a son just the age of that young soldier, through tears of remembrance.