liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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When Living History Becomes "Just History"...

I was pretty much away from the computer most of the weekend (except for my one post Sunday), so I (thankfully) missed the (justified) outrage over the Harry Potter RPG called Kristallnacht at InsaneJournal. By the time I read about it, the offensive name had been changed, so I didn't see the point of piling on.

I did read through the comments, though, mostly because: 1) I couldn't believe anyone would be that clueless; and 2) I really wanted to figure out what the RPGers were thinking when they thought their RPG name was a good idea.

One bothersome comment really stood out. (I hear you asking, "Just one bothersome comment? Really?" Okay, it was the comment that pissed me off more than any other.) I forget the exact wording, but one of the people who had stubbornly decided that the outrage was a case of baaaa-baaaa-sheep jumping on the bandwagon had snottily said that the Holocaust happened so long ago and that people should "just get over it" or "not dwell on it."

That was the comment I knew I had to respond to because it Pissed. Me. Off. It pissed me off in the exact same way similar comments did in October when last we dealt with crap like this, complete with accusations that people protesting the crap were "extremists," or "lacked a sense of humor," or were "acting like sheep in a pile-on."

And so, I was all set to wham this individual over the head, when I got massively, massively sidetracked. As a result, whamming never happened.

As for why said whamming never happened, I have a very, very good excuse. Just bear with me on this, okay?

But first, let me explain why this particular comment pissed me off:

The Holocaust happened in my parents' lifetimes, a couple, I am both relieved and pleased to note that are very much still alive, happy, healthy, active, and in possession of all their marbles.

So, as for the Holocaust happening a long, long time ago, please let me point out that it didn't happen as long ago as one might think. The liberation of Auschwitz happened in January 1945. That's a little over 63 years ago.

Raise your hand if you know someone who's 63 years old or older and very much alive. Think parent, grandparent, uncle, or aunt.

When looked at in that light, I think it's very hard for anyone to say that Holocaust happened "a long time ago" and that plenty of time has passed, so people should be able to just "get over it."

Now, let me add another layer on why the comment pissed me off: My mother when she was younger ended up listening to one Holocaust survivor's story over a period of a couple of years. She had, in turn, transmitted it to me, so I likewise knew the story as well.

My initial impulse was to respond to this individual by relaying the above. However, I decided that my response might have more power if I came up with a couple of links so I could "prove" that I wasn't making up a Holocaust story just to prove a point in an Internet fight.

So, I Googled.

Then I Googled some more.

Hours later, I was still digging and Googling my fingers off as my disbelieving eyes searched for something that, I swear to God, isn't well-documented. As for what wisps of information exist, it's contradictory at best, and dead wrong at worst.

Needless to say, the business about the Harry Potter RPG just faded into the background because that was no longer important. This was.

It's the damnedest thing: I appear to know a true fact about Auschwitz-Birkenau that (it seems) no one else appears to know with any degree of certainty, all because my then 21-year-old mother was willing to listen whenever one Holocaust survivor needed to talk to someone, and because my mother later told to it me.

And here is why remembering the Holocaust and other genocides are so damn important: It is so horribly easy for stories to just get so lost that no one, not even the most dedicated historian, will ever be able to find them. History can easily swallow a story whole, twist the facts, and turn what's left into a passing footnote that's considered of no or little importance.

As for this particular story, let's call this one: The True Story of the Missing Jewish Women in Block 24

Let me preface what I'm about to say with a confession: I was half-convinced after several hours of on-line research that I had somehow gotten twisted up about the story my mother told me. I had known the story my entire life, but it had been years since I'd heard it. It could've been that I had mentally added details or had forgotten details over the years.

However, I did know that I had the basic outline of the story correct (I had enough objective evidence of that), but I figured that my memory must've gone screwy about the details because everything I had found in my online research said I was wrong.

Sometime around 9 p.m. I shut off the computer in disgust because, clearly, I was banging my head against a wall.

Before I get to this survivor's story, let me first give you a little historical background:

There was in Auschwitz a brothel located in Block 24 (you'll have to scroll down to find the picture and the reference), which now serves as the camp's main records building and part of the museum. It's the overwhelming brick block of a building with the camp's main gate ("Arbeit Macht Frei") in the foreground.

Historically speaking, Auschwitz was not the only concentration camp that had a brothel. In fact there were several camps that had them, thanks to Heinrich Himmler. Why? Because Himmler had decided that these brothels were just a dandy way to motivate and reward officers and high-ranking camp personnel. Just staff them with "Aryans," or at least Aryan-looking women from among the camp's population, and you've got yourself a brothel any Nazi would be proud to have in their camp. (Please note sarcasm here.)

Actually, calling Block 24 and its sister houses in other concentration camps "brothels" is a misnomer on a massive scale. It's more accurate to call them "rape houses." Let's face it, when your options are boiled down to "consent or die," I think we can all safely say that there really isn't a whole lot of consent involved. By the same token, the "prostitutes" who staffed these brothels could be better termed as "sex slaves" or comfort women.

Okay, fine as far as this goes. Everything tracks. So far, so good.

Here's where things get really, really spotty:

Just about every reference to the "concentration camp bordellos" claims that the brothels had a "No Jews Allowed" sign nailed right over the front door, and that it applied equally to potential "clients" and women who were forced into prostitution (scroll down almost to the bottom for this bit).

Additional claims I've also seen: that all of the women were actually German prostitutes who'd been trucked in for the purpose; that the women in Block 24 and the other brothels all volunteered for brothel duty as a way out of the camp; that all of the women were handpicked by Himmler himself for their Aryan beauty; and that, no matter what, the Nuremberg Laws were faithfully observed.

I managed to dig up this information through hours and hours of searching and reading. This information was tucked in between the many, many Holocaust denial Web sites that I accidentally clicked on (and just as hurriedly hit the back button to get out of) during my research. Weirdly enough, Holocaust deniers seem to seize on the presence of Block 24 as "proof" that Auschwitz wasn't really a death camp, but a "work camp" with all the Red Cross-approved amenities.

Yeah, I don't get the logic behind that claim either.

However, of the sites that weren't fronts for Holocaust denial, they all agree on two things: there were no Jewish women in Block 24, and there was little pity spared for the women who were in Block 24 (this link should land you on p.192 where information about the brothels begin).

Here's the problem: aside from the existence of the brothels, none of the details matched up with the information I knew, or at least thought I knew.

As I dug through Web site after Web site (including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) I was a whole lot less sure that I was right and everyone else was wrong. It didn't help, by the way, that stories about the concentration camp brothels aren't just thin on the ground, but tucked away in various corners of the Web that wouldn't necessarily be the primary or even secondary destination for people looking for information.

And by-the-by, as little as there is on the concentration camp bordellos with women, I can find nothing about the parallel bordellos that had the young, pretty boys.

Needless to say, I brooded on the business for 24 hours straight because the whole thing bothered me. Clearly, I thought, I had gone wrong somewhere. I knew for certain the woman was Polish, but suddenly I was less certain that she was Jewish. I knew she was involved with Eichmann or Josef Mengele in some way, but I wasn't entirely sure how.

There was no getting around it. I'd have to call my mother to check my memory, and that was that.

So, fast forward to tonight. I blew off the gym so I'd be sure to get home nice and early to get in a quality Q&A with my mother.

The start of the conversation went pretty much like this:

Me: Hey, mom? Remember that Holocaust survivor you knew? She was Polish, right?

Mom: Yeah, she was a Polish Jew.

Me: Are you sure she was Jewish?

Mom: She went to Temple Emmanuel, so I'm very sure.

Me: Congratulations. You officially know someone who doesn't exist.

Mom: What? Who said that? Some little Nazi Holocaust denier?

Me: Nope. People who actually know a lot about the Holocaust.

Mom: Then what do you—

Me: I keep running across claims that there were no Jewish women working as prostitutes in Block 24.

Mom: Really? Are you serious? Someone needs to correct that, because I know there were at least two, because one of them told me herself. I find it really hard to believe that no one has stepped forward in all these years to say how completely wrong that is.

Me: You'd think that'd be the case, but you'd be wrong.

Mom: I haven't thought of her in years. Why are you asking about her?

Me: [gives mom the quick background]

Mom: Role-playing what? Are you kidding me? I hope someone told them that doing something like that is wrong.

Me: Ummmm, more than a few someones actually.

Mom: Good. I hope they were yelled at, too.

Unfortunately, my mother could not recall this survivor's name, so for the sake of clarity, I've named her Interesującą Kobietę (Polish for Interesting Woman).

Now, a little background about my mother, so you'll understand why Interesującą Kobietę felt comfortable enough to talk to her:

My mother worked for 9 years (from the age of 15 to 24) at a local five-and-dime known semi-affectionately in the neighborhood as "the Jewish store," so-called because the owner was a larger-than-life Orthodox Jew named Herb. My mother, being Catholic, was the trusted employee who could work the Sabbath and handle business transactions on High Holy Days when her boss was otherwise occupied or was unable to do so for religious reasons. As a result, she was a known and familiar face for several ethnic neighborhoods. Certainly by the time she was 21, she was essentially a neighborhood fixture.

For purposes of this story, that's pretty much all the information you need to know.

Now as it so happened, Interesującą Kobietę was a good-looking woman of undetermined age who lived in the Polish neighborhood. She was married and had a son upon whom she doted. My mother describes her as a woman who was "pure class." She dressed well, was unfailingly polite, and had graceful movements. She also spoke with a heavy Polish accent, so communication was not always easy for her due to the fact that she only recently learned English.

The other thing my mother remembers about her was that Herb (her boss) had remarked more than once over the years, "She seems a bit old to have a child that age." (The son was 10 years-old in 1961, to give you an idea.) My mother couldn't rightly recall her age. Could've been 30. Could've been 50. Either way, my mother is almost certain that Interesującą Kobietę is no longer alive.

Beyond the above, my mother knew very little about her aside from the fact she went to Temple Emmanuel.

Then, one day, that all changed.

According to my mother, it all started in 1961 when Adolf Eichmann went to trial. During that year, Interesującą Kobietę showed up in the store while my mother and Herb were working waving a letter and talking a mile-a-minute. Her demeanor was so unlike her usual self-possession that the two of them were taken completely aback.

She showed them the letter (which my mother says was not written in English) and excitedly explained that she had been asked to go to Israel to testify against Adolf Eichmann.

And that was how my mother and Herb found out that Interesującą Kobietę had survived Auschwitz.

In the end, Interesującą Kobietę didn't wind up testifying. She was a too terrified of flying and the Israeli authorities thought transport by boat would take too long. In the end, they told her that they had enough witnesses, but that if they needed her to testify, they would send for her.

But that was the very thing that opened the floodgates, so to speak. Interesującą Kobietę started talking to my mother about what she saw and experienced in Block 24 off and on over the next three years.

The story goes like this:

Interesującą Kobietę had been swept up into Auschwitz (from where, my mother doesn't know). She was a young woman and terrified, because she'd already heard the stories about what happened to people who were sent to the camp. She was in line for the gas chambers and absolutely certain that she was going to die, since there was only one person between her and the gas chamber door.

Suddenly, she was yanked out of line by a guard (Note: She was not handpicked by Himmler, but by a random camp guard).

Instead of death, she found herself dragged across the camp and to another building where she was scrubbed within an inch of her life until she was clean and given a full medical check-up. Once she was declared "fit," she was brought to Block 24 to start her knew life as a sex slave servicing officers and camp officials.

However, and this may be a key reason why there's no actual record of Jewish women in Block 24, she was given a new name, as were all the other girls who were in Block 24. Her best girlfriend in Block 24 was also Jewish like her, and also given a new name. (This is how my mother and I knew that, despite all claims to the contrary, there were at least two young Jewish women who'd been pressed into sexual service in Block 24).

As a side note: This would put Interesującą Kobietę's arrival in Auschwitz at 1943 or later, since Block 24 wasn't converted into a brothel until that year.

According to what Interesującą Kobietę told my mother, the women were given plenty to eat and drink, had access to plenty of soap and water, were told to wear make-up and perfume, were dressed in lingerie (and only lingerie 24/7), and given regular health checks.

"We were," Interesującą Kobietę told my mother, "treated well."

At least by comparison, anyway.

The catch was that you had to do whatever the officers and camp officials wanted. If they wanted to just talk, you talked. If they wanted sex, you had sex. If they wanted to beat the ever-living shit out of you, you had to let yourself get beat up.

And God help you if you got sick (say, with an STD), or got pregnant. Any woman unlucky enough to fall into either category disappeared from Block 24 and was never seen again. Interesującą Kobietę didn't say what happened to them, but she darkly speculated to my mother that they were most likely sent to Josef Mengele so he and his medical torturers could experiment on them.

Needless to say, if you found yourself in Block 24, you did everything and anything to stay healthy and not get pregnant. But most importantly, you did what you were told without question.

There was also, according to what Interesującą Kobietę told my mother, a parallel brothel that housed young boys who were also sexual slaves. Interesującą Kobietę was less clear where this parallel brothel was. All she knew was that the boys were young and "had good complexions."

She also told my mother that the officers and the camp officials used both brothels indiscriminately (yes, even the SS officers), depending on their mood and whether their favorite woman or boy was otherwise engaged with someone higher on the food chain.

She described to my mother more than once over the years, how ash would fall like snow from the sky when the crematoriums were running. She described how Block 24 was very near (either in the building next door, or one in the immediate vicinity) where Josef Mengele and the SS doctors did their torturous medical experiments.

She also described how dead bodies were sometimes placed in front of Block 24 right next to the road so the inmates who were sent out of the camp to work would see them as they passed through the main gate. (This I can definitely confirm from other sources. These corpses were people who supposedly tried to escape the camp, so their placement was part psychological warfare on the camp inmates who daily left the camp to perform slave labor, and part reminder about the futility of escaping.)

As for why she had been contacted about testifying against Eichmann, as it turns out, her best girlfriend in Block 24 was Eichmann's "favorite" in the brothel, and he'd always go to her whenever he was visiting Auschwitz. As a result, Interesującą Kobietę saw Eichmann many times during her stay in Block 24.

As for Interesującą Kobietę, the monster of note that she had dealt with was Mengele. She wasn't a favorite, but he was in her bed more than once, according to what she said to my mother. It should be noted that whenever Mengele's name crossed her lips, she'd angrily spit on the ground. My mother said Interesującą Kobietę had a very special hatred reserved for Mengele, that much was very clear.

Says it all, really.

Interesującą Kobietę was in Auschwitz and Block 24 at least until late 1944. During the end of her time there, the camp guards were engaged in the final throws of exterminating the Jews, "Slavs" (that would include the non-Jewish Poles, by the way), Romani, and others.

She described to my mother how she'd see the guards force people to dig these long, deep ditches. Once the digging was done, the guards would force the diggers to stand in the ditch and open fire. Once everyone was dead, a new group of people were forced to stand in the ditch on top of the dead bodies before they, too, were shot. This would continue, wave after wave, until the ditch was full. Then the bodies would be covered over and a new ditch was dug.

Sometime during these mass shootings, Interesującą Kobietę managed to escape both Block 24 and the camp. My mother isn't sure whether she escaped with help, or was smuggled out. Once she was out of the camp, she managed to hook up with some kind of underground railroad that helped get escapees out of Poland. She was passed from person to person and place to place as she made her tortuously slow escape.

And all along the way, she was told the same thing: Run as far away as you can. Keep your head down. Don't try to find people you knew in Auschwitz. And whatever you do, don't tell anyone. People were too afraid that "they" (for "they," read the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers) would somehow manage to escape defeat and would then go after whoever had escaped the camps.

Once Interesującą Kobietę managed to escape the Nazi sphere of influence, found her way to the United States and Massachusetts, where she finally was able to reclaim her real name and start life over.

As it so happened, her husband was also a survivor of Auschwitz, but, as Interesującą Kobietę told my mother, she didn't know him in the camp. They met each other in Massachusetts while they were both building their new lives.

As for the fate of Interesującą Kobietę's best girlfriend from Block 24, Interesującą Kobietę couldn't say. She did escape (my mother seems pretty certain that they escaped together), but Interesującą Kobietę didn't know what country she escaped to, let alone what ultimately happened to her. It's not entirely clear that Interesującą Kobietę even knew her friend's real name. When my mother asked Interesującą Kobietę if she wanted to find her friend, the woman said no, and that it was probably for the best.

And if you're wondering, no, Interesującą Kobietę didn't know what happened to her family, either. She didn't know if any of them survived, or if they all died in Auschwitz.

Anyway, all of this information was told to my mother in bits and pieces over 3 years. And she'd only tell my mother, and not Herb.

As for Herb, once he knew what Interesującą Kobietę survived, he never again commented about her pampered son, nor did he comment that she seemed a little on the old side to be the mother of a such a young-ish child. Well, he knew the why, didn't he? It pretty much explained everything.

Whenever she'd come into the store and start talking to my mother, Herb would go out of his way to do all the work. It was out of respect, you see. If the lady needed to talk, and my mother was the one she wanted to talk to, than far be it from him to say otherwise.

The catch, though, was that he wanted to hear everything Interesującą Kobietę had to say once the woman departed the store. And every time, my mother and Herb would have the same conversation:

"I don't understand why she'll talk to you, but she won't tell me anything," Herb would say. "You're not even Jewish."

"Maybe not," my mother would say, "but I'm a woman. Given what she went through? I'd think that trumps everything."

And so, that's the story, the one I know is true, even though an awful lot of information about Block 24 says that Interesującą Kobietę does not exist.

But she did! She did! My mother knew her. My mother talked to her. My mother knew her story. And that's a fact no one can deny, no matter how hard they say it's not so.

More than that, Interesującą Kobietę's story is an illustration that history is never just history. It's a living, breathing creature that informs who we are as individuals and a society far more than you'd think is possible.

That is why it's important to be oh-so-very careful with history, because you never know just what you might find out (about yourself, about the people around you) if you're too careless about it, or if you fail to realize that even if a given past event that means little to you, it is sure to be painful and deeply personal to someone else.

More than that, trivializing history, or failing to be absolutely comprehensive in your inquiries into it, could result in a history that's lost, forgotten, or belittled. This too, I think, is another thing Interesującą Kobietę's story illustrates.

History, all history, deserves respect. It's something to keep in mind in the future.

ETA: As it appears I'm starting to get a sprinkle of people who actually doubt the above story is real, a few people have provided the following academic cite to show that the basic facts supporting the story are real enough. You can access the article via JSTOR:

Heineman ED. Sexuality and Nazism: the doubly unspeakable? Journal of the History of Sexuality. Jan–Apr 2002; 11(1/2; Special Issue): 22-66. Available at:

ETA2: I've contacted the U.S. Holocaust Memorial museum per the suggestion of numerous people who've responded in hopes of at least getting some pointers on where I can search for her name. I may also be taking up some of the academics up on their offers to help me look for her. I also promise to keep people updated on my search.

ETA3: The response as been overwhelming. I will do my best to respond, but it might take a little bit to get to you. Please know that I am reading and I do appreciate your comments and the stories you're sharing in the comments. Thank you to everyone who reads and/or responds.

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