What I was wearing when we sang at Auschwitz… was red. Red trousers.
I went to Auschwitz because I belong to a choir. We’ve sung in Seville, Bruges, Venice. This year, it was Krakow, five recitals and one mini-concert in a concentration camp.
I didn’t want to visit Auschwitz. Going to Poland was enough of a challenge. It’s a country my family was desperate to leave and by 1939 the ones who hadn’t left started to disappear. It turned out they were being rounded up and sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek. That’s where they died, all of them except pretty cousin Regina, who managed to survive Auschwitz.
Family lore has it Mengele himself picked her out of the line up during selection and kept her on to work in his unspeakable hospital. After liberation she emigrated to the United States of America and there she attended family weddings and bar mitzvahs, a chiffon scarf nicely draped over the numbers tattooed on her arm.
I’m not claiming a distinction; this is a common story among Jews. My point is, all things considered, I figured I could give Auschwitz a miss.
The weeks before Krakow, we rehearsed: Handel, Stanford and “Enosh,” the Hebrew song planned for Auschwitz. With Enosh all mixed in with the rest of the repertoire I ended up singing along. What was I going to do – stand there with my mouth clamped shut?
Enosh, a psalm, is about mercy and the frailty of life. It’s plaintive but powerful, and one night, the altos soaring – I’m an alto - elated by that pure sound and a little high from all the oxygen you take in when you sing, I realized I had to go to Auschwitz after all, because singing at that death camp was the best “fuck you” I could imagine. I’d warble about loving-kindness and man’s days are as grass, and what I’d really be saying was, “Hey! Nazi thugs! I’m here. You didn’t get all of us.”
I decided to wear my red trousers - an act of provocation, like the red capote that taunts the bull. I guess I was feeling a little thug-like myself.
On our first day in Krakow, we piled into a bus and drove due west to Auschwitz.
There wasn’t much to see along the way: Soviet-era housing, the occasional farm. Closer to Auschwitz, the landscape turned industrial - mines, factories, a confluence of railway lines. This reminded me that Auschwitz was more than a death camp; it was also a work camp - high profit, low overhead.
Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free – that’s the insidious motto that greets you on arrival. What also greets you are sausages and vending machines. This afforded a communal sense of relief, as in, “Look at all those people buying kielbasa and Coke Zero! Why, this isn’t so bad.”
But of course, it was bad.
Auschwitz was many layers: Auschwitz I, administration and barracks; Auschwitz-Birkenau II, extermination; Auschwitz III, slave labor.
There were the layers of authority, from commandant and senior personnel – Gestapo and SS in their spiffy Hugo Boss uniforms – to guards, clerks and the guys in the motor pool.
Prisoners had their own hierarchy. Inmate trustees – non-Jews –maintained control. Below them were Sonderkommando, a forced-labor unit of strong Jews. They did the grunt work, escorting new arrivals to the gas chambers, yanking gold teeth from lifeless mouths, hauling bodies to the crematoriums. Sonderkommando received better food and housing than other prisoners, but these amenities were fleeting; every few months each unit was eliminated, every man killed. They knew too much.
After liberation, a notebook was found under a pile of human ash. It was an account of camp life, written by a singularly brave Sonderkommando named Zalman Gradowski. Not only did he risk punishment by writing the account, he also organized the only prisoner revolt at Auschwitz. Seventy SS guards died. So did 200 Sonderkommando, including Gradowski, but his death was possibly of small consequence to him. His time as a human ended, he believed, when he became a Sonderkommando: “One must be transformed into a robot,” he wrote, “become unseeing, unfeeling and uncomprehending.”
To a small degree, I too approached Auschwitz as a robot. I went on autopilot, averting my eyes from certain exhibits - the hair room, the hospital barracks. Defiance might have brought me to Auschwitz, but I wanted to emerge unscathed.
I almost succeeded, almost got out intact and untouched, but I’d forgotten we were meant to sing.
In order to sing, one must open up, give in to the process and the passion. One has to see, feel and understand - the exact opposite of everything Zalman Gradowski was forced to do.
We stood on a grassy rise between the public toilets and Crematorium One, site of Gradowski’s revolt. We took out our music. I couldn’t see the words or the notes. I wasn’t thinking about thugs, Nazi or otherwise. The slope threw us off-balance and, tilting precariously, we sang Enosh to all the innocents who had come to Auschwitz, then and now.
Michelle Shepherd-Barron, originally from New York, lives in Cambridge, England. She writes about the life of a modern-day immigrant in her blog What I Was Wearing.