Summary | Part I | Part II | Part III | Footnotes

Part II

At Wannsee in 1942, when the fourteen top German officials of all the important Reich departments discussed the collective decision to put into gear the genocide of the Jews, they phrased it simply as the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). They made no distinction between men, women, and children and called the implementation of this murderous plan ambiguously Umsiedlung (resettlement), Evakuierung (evacuation), or Transport. These neutral words served as a smokescreen to conceal the true intention and were part of the deception to solicit the victims' cooperation with deportation to the death camps in Poland. But the actual procedures made a distinction between (mainly Jewish) males and females, including children, during those crucial war years from 1939-1945. In the case of women, sexism was often an added component, whether it concerned large groups or individuals in close encounters with German officials or soldiers.18 One example as reported by Rudolf Vrba, was that of an SS official answering a frightened Jewish woman as she disembarked from a transport to Auschwitz. She asked whether she and the other deportees were to be killed. He replied, "Madam, do you think we are barbarians?"19 His deceitful response was also ironic since the address "Madam" was a mockery and "barbarians" was the truth.

For most Holocaust survivors, giving testimony of these terrifying experiences has been difficult. Some have remained silent altogether. One reason is the shame they feel of having been thrown into a state of helplessness; of having been reduced to subhuman beings (Untermenschen); of having taken desperate actions to stay alive; and finally for some, to bear the very shame of survival itself.20 Men in particular felt the humiliation of having been stripped of all power and status to the effect that they were unable to protect those for whom they were customarily responsible: wives, children, and the elderly. They remain hesitant to verbalize such debasement and often prefer to single out acts of courage or resistance. Jewish women, by contrast, are often ashamed of the violation of their modesty (e.g. public undressing for inspection); and, if mothers, of having failed to keep their children alive; at the outset of arriving at Auschwitz, having had to choose death together with the children; being forced to make the decision which child would die immediately; or in rare cases, having had to endure the humiliation of rape or of using sex to survive. The fact that the German enemy in reality provided them with pseudo choices of life and death, in Laurence Langer's words, "choiceless choices," continues to haut them as their own immoral choice.21 It is difficult for them to rationalize that it was a decision taken in a moral vacuum.

Those who give testimony, frequently mention the German Aktion and Umschlagplatz as unforgettable memory words. The general translation of the former is "operation" or "action" in the sense of a "measure" or "step." But during the Second World War, Aktion signified the brutal round-ups of Jews, accompanied with verbal insults, physical injury, and often murder. Nachman Blumenthal, one of the earliest researchers of the Nazis' language, traced this term in its various mutations and applications and defined it as "the most cruel word the Jewish people remember from the period of the Catastrophe."22 In this murderous context, it has been preserved not only in survivors' memory and written accounts, but also in post-Shoah Jewish literature. When women were involved, Aktion could take on the appearance of an improvised stage show by the perpetrator.

Olga Sher, a survivor from Poland, witnessed such a scene: a Gestapo officer treated a pretty Jewish woman with mocked courtesy and called her "fancy doll" (Zierpuppe) as he loaded her, in macabre playfulness, onto a truck that carried her to her death. It is a disturbing thought for the witness that this almost surreal interlude, acted out with deliberate restraint, deceptive civility, and accompanied by unfitting verbal references, spared perhaps the beautiful twenty-one year-old onlooker of the same fate. The image and verbalizations of loading the truck with people came back to her with all its force years later. When her young boys went to summer camp in Canada and were picked up by a truck she thought, what if they never returned?23 In this way, the past often overrides the present, so that safety can never be taken for granted and is still perpetually being tested. As psychologist Aaron Hass states, survivors "saw the impotence of piety and the tenacity of evil. Survivors saw their [evil] fellow man. And so they anxiously await the next expected blow." This dark worldview and deep-seated fear show that for them, "the Holocaust was yesterday…and today."24

The other term, Umschlagplatz, is connected to equally strong memories. It denotes "(freight) transfer point" in its neutral application but to survivors it carries the meaning of the gathering place or point of assembly for Jews. There, the German SS forced them onto trains to deport them to death camps or sometimes murdered them on the spot. The particularity of this place is emphasized by the German word in the English poem, "In the Warsaw of 1996." Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, writes even today, "Who is ... the woman ... Cutting through Umschlagplatz?"25 Such words would be lost in translation since English (or words from other languages) do not have the same power of meaning for the individuals who experienced first hand their life-shattering effect.26 Thus do they appear in their original form, stand out in italics in many Holocaust accounts, and the reader's eye is drawn immediately to them.

What survivors also recall, especially women, are utterances made by SS officials or German soldiers. They range from the basest insults to military-style commands. Czech survivor Ruth Elias describes the arrival of her Transport at Auschwitz: "The doors were thrown open and we faced a terrible inferno. Screaming. Barking of dogs... An incessant yelling, ‚Out, out, leave everything. Out, out. Quicker, you Jewish bastards' (Schweinehunde)."27 Elizabeth Welt Trahan recalls sarcastically "the only formal address" of the Gestapo in Vienna as having been "Saujud'" ("Jew-pig")28 ; and Ruth Elias, too, "I can only remember the yelling and the constantly uttered word 'Saujude,' with which we were addressed."29 It is not surprising that, after the war, many survivors experienced a kind of linguistic liberation from these degrading German expletives hurled at Jews. Ruth Altbeker Cyprys, from Poland, relieved herself of them by listing them once more in her account: "l would never again hear their horrible bullying orders, their shouted insults. 'Los! Fort! Schnell! Laufen! Dreck! Schwein! Verflucht.'"30

This primitive German speech behaviour came first as a surprise to many educated Jews at the onset of the war. Since Germans had been generally perceived as "bearers of culture" (Kulturträger), there was a glimmer of hope that the German invaders would recognize the interest of others in their arts and letters. It manifested Bildung, the German educational ideal of self-cultivation based on liberal and humanistic tenets. Instead, even the language of the German occupiers was different from the cultured German and literature these Jews had learned earlier. The new tone and vocabulary accompanied the inhuman acts and deadly mission of the now German enemies. Olga Sher mentioned that her initial, positive attitude towards the German language was crushed upon her initiation to the changed German way.31 Since directives governed most encounters during that time she, like other survivors, recalls the German speech as viciously loud "barking." It is this form of speaking that adds "linguistic injury" to the meaning of "the words by which one is addressed."32

To this day, hearing commands in German again, can resurrect fear and behavior reactions that throw survivors instantly back into the Holocaust. Even shouts like "Los, los! Vorwärts!" that signify nothing more threatening than the urgency to "hurry up, move on," can trigger a panic attack in someone who is reminded of Nazi persecution.33 Olga Sher confirms such an occurrence when she recounts that, a few years ago on a tour bus on a Caribbean island, she heard a German guide shouting, "Alles raus!" Despite her awareness of contemporary safety, she reacted spontaneously with fright and rushed away.

Survivors of concentration camps recall the daily roll calls to count the inmates with Appell or Zählappell. This exercise could take hours, sometimes in extreme heat or cold, and was used often as collective punishment or sadistic torture. Particularly for women, this military-style camp routine was an additional hardship. The guards' language reflected this regimented masculine life and the constant use of the imperative mode in conjunction with verbal insults. A woman forced into the work camp at Vilno recounts: "They were all shouting and had machine guns. To me, they were all ugly-faced monsters. Inhuman."34 Therefore, the bellowing of German orders still echoes in the mind of surviving inmates: Achtung!, Abtreten!, and Los! (Attention. Move. Go). There was also "Weiter!" ("Move."), a directive used to urge them to walk or work faster. French internee at Auschwitz, Charlotte Delbo, called one of her chapter headings "Weiter" and situates this word in the concentrationary world: "We cannot move. The sound of the beating is like the beating of a rug …'Weiter,' orders the SS more imperiously ...'Weiter' shrieks the SS ...'Weiter.' A shot. The woman crumples."35 This scene illustrates graphically the connection of word, event, and memory image. Judy Cohen also remembers the demeaning German words to make them hurry on mercilessly although already in a state of complete exhaustion: "Los, los, schneller, verfluchte Juden!" ("Move on, faster, you damned Jews").

Other survivors connect language memories to specific German objects and events of the past, such as Olga Sher's Kennkarte (ID) and Armbinde (armband). They are still in her possession today and remind her vividly of her precarious state and status as a Jew in German-occupied Poland. In neutral terms, Kennkarte was and still is a personal German identification document. But for Olga Sher and other Jews in the same situation it was an invaluable paper that represented life itself. Hers, as a Jewish life, meant little to the Germans' waging war in Poland. Yet, the Kennkarte gave her permission to work and thus stay alive for a time. As a healthy young woman, she was exploitable labor to satisfy the German military effort. But she learned soon enough that the document, together with an attached special marking of the letter "R" for Rüstung (armament) on a piece of burlap, could be revoked at any time. Revocation would have spelled Transport and almost certain death in a concentration camp.

Her German Armbinde was sometimes referred to as Judenbinde (Jew band) in Nazi German. All Jews in German-occupied Poland had had to wear it from 1941 on to openly identify themselves as Jewish. To her, it will always contain the memory of the dreaded German language and the actions associated with it. This kind of fear, she says, is very difficult to convey. She wishes to keep these life-saving mementos with their unforgettable German names for her grandchildren as silent witnesses to this nightmare moment in history.36

Situation and language were different in the concentration camps. There, the inmates who were not murdered upon arrival could have a prolonged experience with the reductive, destructive, and deadly language that Primo Levi called Lager-Jargon. It also bore no resemblance to the German of science and literature that many knew. He wrote, "So I realized that the German of the Lager [camp]-skeletal, howled, studded with obscenities and imprecations-was only vaguely related to the precise, austere language of my chemistry books, or the melodious, refined German of Heine's poetry …."37 The inhuman camp vernacular in turn influenced the evolution of a special language used by the inmates at Auschwitz (and other camps). It is a unique linguistic hybrid that is now known by the German-Polish name, "lagerszpracha." Danuta Weselowska analyzed it in her 1996 volume with the fitting title "Words from Hell: The Camp Language of the Detainees of Auschwitz."38 Camp survivors used these terms because they surrounded them on a daily basis. In their accounts they provide glossaries for the reader who is unfamiliar with this language. A good example is Isabella Leitner's Saving the Fragments: From Auschwitz to New York.39

I wish to mention two examples from this vocabulary that characterized women in the camps. Both the guards and the inmates employed these words of address: Schmuckstücke and Hure. The literal meaning of the first is "pieces of jewelry." It was the ironic name-also in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women-for female prisoners on the verge of death from starvation, abuse, and/or disease. The male equivalent was Muselmänner (Muslims), which gives a different connotation. At Ravensbrück there was also the lesser known word Muselweiber, deprecatory for female Muslims. But it is the masculine form that tends to be defined by both male and female writers. For instance, Ruth Elias calls these "living skeletons" by their generic name, Muselmänner. She explains, "completely apathetic, they moved from one place to another dragging their feet because they had no more strength to lift them. They had no longer thoughts in their heads."40

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.