Monday, 27 January 2020
Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th january 2020
According to Primo Levi's account ("If this is a Man," Chapter 17) the Germans evacuated Auschwitz on 18th January 1945 as the Russian armies approached. He writes:
All the healthy prisoners (except a few prudent ones who at the last moment undressed and hid themselves in the hospital beds) left during [that] night. . . They must have been about twenty thousand, coming from different camps. Almost in their entirety they vanished during the evacuation march. . . Perhaps someone will write their story one day.
By what turned out to be good fortune, a week earlier Levi had been diagnosed with scarlet fever and consigned to the hospital. The guards appear to have forgotten, or deliberately decided to abandon, the sick, who were left behind. They also left behind some potatoes in the kitchen. After collecting some, and finding a stove on which to cook them, Levi writes:
It was essential to get [the stove] working. We all three [Levi and two fellow patients] had our hands paralysed while the icy metal stuck to the skin of our fingers, but it was vitally urgent to set it up to warm ourselves to boil the potatoes. We found wood and coal as well as embers from the burnt huts [which had been bombed and abandoned.]
When. . . the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty-three, typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed.
Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said: 'eat your own bread, and, if you can, that of your neighbour', and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead.
It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge (prisoners) to men again.