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My Father, the Everyman of Holocaust Survivors

He rarely spoke about what he endured as an individual. What mattered, I recently realized, was what he’d experienced with others.

Robert Rosenberg
October 24, 2014
Photograph by Henryk Ross. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin Meed
Jews in the Łódź ghetto rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz during the summer of 1944. Photograph by Henryk Ross. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin Meed
Photograph by Henryk Ross. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin Meed
Jews in the Łódź ghetto rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz during the summer of 1944. Photograph by Henryk Ross. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin Meed

Last winter I began work on a book project about my mother and her small circle of friends. When Bergen-Belsen was liberated in 1945, the Swedish Red Cross brought her to Sweden, where she was sent to the small industrial city of Boras to work in a textile factory. The women she met in Boras—almost all of those brought to Sweden by the Red Cross were women—became a surrogate family to her, replacements for the sisters she’d lost during the war.

Many of the women remained in Boras until the 1950s, when most departed for the United States, Canada, or Israel. Yet even after my mother came to the United States and made contact with blood relatives—some of them American-born and others who had also been in the camps and survived Hitler—she felt a special bond and connection to the Borasers and stayed close to them. As a child growing up in Borough Park, I remember running around with other children whose mothers had been in Boras, squeezing into the crawl space under the tables and chairs that were our make-believe bunkers and hiding places, while overhead the talk was as always of death and murder, suffering and hunger.

As part of my research for the project, I had been granted access through Columbia University to the Visual History Archives, which are the audiovisual archives of the Shoah Foundation. But my access was limited by my freelance work schedule and the library’s hours. So I searched online, looking for other resources and testimonies and interviews with survivors that might illuminate my mother’s experience.

I found little of value with respect to my mother’s story. But, almost incidentally, I happened upon information about someone else whose life I hadn’t planned on researching: the other survivor in our household, my father.

When you Google the terms “Holocaust” or “survivors of the Holocaust,” there are almost as many websites devoted to denying the existence of the Holocaust as there were victims. The results of one search yielded the Auschwitz Archives, an amateurish page that I took at first to be yet another site for Holocaust deniers but is actually the repository for all the extant archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I found it hard to focus on the home page, something that had less to do with the site than with the belief that no one can look directly at Auschwitz and remain sane, which is itself but a corruption of the biblical story where God tells Moses that no man may behold God’s face and live. Similarly, I had spent my childhood looking out the corner of my eye at my mother and her Boraser friends, grasping at their experience obliquely and by way of inference.

The Auschwitz Archives carries a disclaimer, explaining that during the evacuation and liquidation of KL (Konzentrazion Lager, or concentration camp) Auschwitz, by order of the camp authorities almost all important documents were destroyed, including prisoners’ personal files. Thus, it was impossible to establish full and accurate information about all the people who were imprisoned. Still, some documentation had survived.

There was a prisoner search function, asking for the person by last name, camp identification number, occupation, date of birth, place of birth, place of origin. I had zero expectation of my mother turning up in the archives’ records. Although she was in Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war, she had first been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, the start of the extermination of Hungarian Jewry. When she arrived in Birkenau, the death camp, the gas chambers and crematoria were running full out, and the thinking may have been, why spill ink on those who are headed to the gas chambers anyway? So, she was never tattooed. After two months in Birkenau—the darkest days of her life—she and her two younger sisters were selected as part of a group of 3,200 girls and women sent to work in Germany and they ended up, together, as laborers in a munitions factory. Of the 3,200 lucky enough to be picked for that transport only 34 would survive—including my mother, but not her sisters. And so when I entered my mother’s name in the archives’ database, I didn’t expect to find anything, and was not surprised when my search yielded no results.

Since I was already on the site, I decided to fill out a search form for my father. It was more an afterthought than anything else, just as his life during the war had always been an afterthought. My father had been the invisible man in our household and his experience, a mystery, an abstraction. Not because he wished to keep that experience secret but because of his matter-of-fact attitude toward what he had been through. Unlike my mother, who spoke frequently with her Boraser friends about her experiences, he did not dwell on his life before the war, perhaps because that life had been so impoverished, so miserable, that some part of him felt guilt at his inability to mourn its passing.

My father was taken from Sosnowiec (“Sosnovitz,” as it fell from his lips) after the liquidation of the ghetto and was sent to Auschwitz, where he became prisoner number 172070. I grew up looking at those six numerals on his left forearm, so one would think they would be indelibly imprinted on my mind. But it is strange how such things really work. I had to check with my younger brother to confirm the number but it turned out he was even more confused than me: He remembered it being 170017. Fortunately, however, there was an old photograph in my apartment of my father holding my son, then an infant, at a birthday party. It is summertime and my father wears a short-sleeve shirt. With a magnifying glass, the blue tattoo is clearly decipherable.

I filled in the details of my father’s life on the website—his birth date, the tiny village where he was born, the names of his mother and father, the city from which he was deported. I stopped at “date of arrest”—what constituted his “arrest”? He had been in one of the final transports from Sosnowiec together with a smattering of others left behind to clean up after the liquidation of the ghetto. Apprenticed as a tailor prior to the war, he sewed together scraps—clothing, fabric, bedding—to be shipped to Germany as war materiel. He spent those last three months in Sosnowiec, he said, doing one thing: eating whatever he could. He didn’t know about Auschwitz but knew enough to know that the next place after Sosnowiec would be much worse than anything he’d known to then. So, he arrived in Auschwitz in as good a shape as possible. He passed the selection and was placed in Auschwitz-Monowitz/Buna and sent to labor in the IG Farben synthetic rubber plant. In the barrack with him were two Italian Jews, one a chemist named Levi—whom my father referred to simply as “the chemist Levi” or “the Italian Levi,” not knowing until many years later that Levi had become a famous author.

My father told me this story in its entirety exactly once: When the liberation finally came, it found him in a barn on the outskirts of a village in Germany. He along with several hundred other prisoners had been on the move for months, shuttling from one concentration camp to another, sometimes on foot and sometimes packed into cattle cars, but not one camp would take them in. There was no room in any of the camps, not even for one more Jew.

He was in a cattle car when finally the Allies bombed the railroad tracks and the German soldiers who had been guarding the transport ran off. Before long the prisoners realized the guards were gone and broke down the doors and climbed down from the train. On the track next to theirs was a train filled with provisions for the German high command, and those who were strong enough broke in and took hold of the meats and other delicacies and fought off anyone who tried to come near. My father was too weak to struggle, and he crawled off and found a boxcar filled with potatoes and climbed into it and built a fire and roasted some potatoes. Then he climbed down from the boxcar and lay down in the field beside the railway embankment, listening to the cry of inmates who had gorged themselves on meat and marmalade and who were now dying of dysentery. He was delirious, more dead than alive, and lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, an S.S. man was standing over him, pointing a pistol at him and telling him to get to his feet. And my father said: Why are you bothering with me? You see that I am almost dead. Go, shoot me. The S.S. man said: I give orders, not you. Then he crouched and looked him in the eye and said: You, Juden, you Jews—you are the winners. You have beaten us. Soon it will be you the world celebrates. But for now, we, the Deutschefolke, we have the power. And my father said: Why do you care to mortify my life? Leave me be. And the S.S. man said: I mortify you because I have the power and because it is my will. And as long as I can, I will.

When he told us this story, my father said that had he pleaded for his life the S.S. man would probably have shot him. But because he wanted to be left to die, the S.S. man had marched him off to the barn and forced him to live.

Months after my archive search, when a response finally arrived with the subject line “from the Auschwitz Archives,” I took it for spam—or a communique from one of the Holocaust deniers who call the Internet home. Not only had I forgotten my request for information, I’d forgotten the Auschwitz Archives even existed. Fortunately, I didn’t trash it, unread.

In reply to your enquiry we would like to inform you that in partially saved documentation which are kept in our archives there are the following data about below-mentioned prisoner:
Hersz Rosenberg (personal detail unknown) was deported to KL Auschwitz in January 13, 1944, from Benzin and Sosnowiec. He was registered as prisoner no. 172070.
Last mention in the files: 25.5.1944 – prisoner’s infirmary in Monowitz-Buna camp.
Source of information:
KL Auschwitz files.

I was stunned, but the surprise soon turned to elation, elation that something beyond his person had survived, that there was a record of his existence and experience, that for a brief moment my father emerged an individual from the multitude. As a child, I remember looking at photographs and footage of the liberated concentration camp inmates in their barracks, searching for my father’s face and continuing to do so long after I knew I would not find him.

My initial elation over the email, however, soon gave way to its opposite. What difference did it make whether there was a record of him? What did it change?

Moreover, as I read the message again—particularly the archives’ disclaimer that almost all the documents and information the camp authorities considered to be important had been destroyed—it struck me that whatever remained must have been deemed unimportant. And thinking about the bits of information about my father—the date of his arrival in Auschwitz, the city of origin, identification number, a visit to the infirmary nearly 70 years ago—indeed, it was hard to feel that these were of any significance whatsoever, that they raised him to the stage of history, itself an archaic notion, I know, but the reason for my initial elation.

But glancing at the email again, I realized that the article was missing from the subject line, that rather than it reading “from the Auschwitz Archives,” the line written by a non-native English speaker read “from Auschwitz Archives” and that I had supplied the missing article myself.

I thought about that article over the next days, and about the Hersz Rosenberg who entered Auschwitz and became Prisoner No. 172070, turning into No Man, and realized that the message from the archives had done nothing to reify that Hersz Rosenberg of Sosnowiec and that he would always remain an abstraction and a mystery to me, missing just as that article from the subject line had been missing.

That might have been the end of the matter. But a few weeks ago, I went to a party given by the family of one of my older son’s friends and mentioned the email from the archives. The story intrigued them, and someone—the stepfather of my son’s friend—asked about my father and his life. But as I talked, I could feel my words violating my father, diminishing him—as if by particularizing my father’s experience, by seeking to elevate him somehow above the mass of humanity, a deeper, more significant truth about him had been lost, and that the truth about him lay instead among the masses whose lot he had shared, masses removed of articles.

It made me wonder what my father’s reaction might have been had he lived to see the email arrive. He was a man of few words but one of his favorites was einfachermensch, a Yiddish word that means “simple man” but might be translated more accurately as “everyman.” I believe my father, that invisible man, would have shrugged and said nothing, not because he wished to hide or withhold his experiences from anyone, but because what mattered was neither the individual nor the detail but the fabric of a faceless humanity whose rags he would sew together in the months following the liquidation of the Sosnowiec ghetto. If his experience mattered and stood out at all, it did so by virtue of the fact that it did not stand out in any way. Like the masses, unidentifiable and seemingly numberless, that disappeared without a trace, he had been cast in a morality play beyond his ken or control. In that awful drama it fell to him to play the role of everyman.

Robert Rosenberg, a writer, is at work on a book.