Your mother survived Auschwitz/Birkenau. That was certainly an achievement – but that wasn’t her only one.
“I have asked you all to join me here today to tell you about your mother and our very special relationship,” the doctor said to us siblings. “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I have to say this, that your mother was unique. Your mother survived Auschwitz/Birkenau. That was certainly an achievement but it wasn’t her only one.
“Your mother is the one patient who made me become a better doctor and the one who made me realise every person’s unique qualities and conditions. Your mother made me a humble man but she also made me a better doctor. I have gathered you here today because I have to tell you this and how special she was to me.
“22 years ago, I diagnosed your mother with an extremely malignant type of cancer. We searched for the primary tumor but we couldn’t find it. I removed lymph nodes filled with cancer cells. The main tumor could – and would – easily spread and develop metastases just anywhere without us being able to do anything other than giving palliative treatment. That’s how it was and I knew and I had to convey this grim message to your mother. She received no treatment except for X-ray examinations to see how the spread of metastases progressed. That was all we could do for her.
“I gave her no more than a year to live and that’s what I told her. It was the result of the overall medical science’s experience of this particular form of cancer. I was confident in my expertise. I was the surgeon who operated and held life and death in my hands. My job was based on scientific conclusions. The surgeon’s job is concrete and hands-on. My word counts. People respect me.
“A year after my confident albeit grim statement, she returned and sat patiently in my waiting room. She did not have an appointment. She just sat there waiting. She refused to leave and eventually I was forced to receive her, appointment or not.
“Her brown eyes bore into me and I had the sensation of melting before her like a wax candle. Her eyes did not let go of me for a moment.
‘You said I’d be dead now,’ she said. ‘I’m still alive. Your books don’t have the whole truth.’ And she continued: ‘Never take someone’s hope away. Never ever.’
“That’s what she said. And I have never forgotten about it. How could I?
“Never take someone’s hope away. Never ever.
“The incredible happened. Your mother kept the cancer in check. How she did it I don’t know. It was unique. She was unique. For 22 years she lived with this rare and lethal illness. During these years, we developed a very special relationship, your mother and I. She rang me when she needed help and I always made time for her, especially towards the end of her life when she developed swelling and lumps with cancer cells in them. She called, we talked, I cut them out and she went home again.
“For many years, your mother let me call on her when I had young medical students and we talked about ethics and about morality and that humans are biological beings with different and often pre-existing conditions. She came with me and met with the students and we told them about our special relationship. She impressed people, your mother.
“Whether her time in Auschwitz/Birkenau had anything to do with her attitude to life, I don’t know. What the decisive factor was that caused her to keep the disease in check and to build a new life after the war, I do not know either. We didn’t talk about it directly it but it was always there, in the background. What she taught us, among other things, was that you can never know who it is that you have in front of you.
“You must assume that the person you have before you may be the one who reverses all your previous experience and you should never lose this way of looking at a seemingly mortally ill person – and you should never take hope away from your patient. Life has to go on until it’s over. This was the subject of the conversations I held with my students.
“Respect and a humble attitude make us better professionals. That was my conclusion.
“I registered as a volunteer doctor at the hospice where your mother was cared for at the end of her life. I wanted to be with her until the end and she allowed me to be there with her. She was a unique person and my respect for her was, and is, immense. She is gone now but her memory lives on. This is why I wanted to talk to you today. That’s how special she was. And is.”
This is what he said, the doctor, the Swedish surgeon at the little hospital who had gathered me and my siblings to tell us about his and our mother’s very special relationship.
We sat there listening to the doctor and we mourned together, in our own ways.
Don’t expect me to find anything
“Don’t expect me to find anything,” she said. “There are so many who come here, so full of hope, and many expect so much – but there is so little material left,” she continued. “You must understand that the Germans destroyed as many documents as possible before they retreated from the onrushing Russian army,” she said, the archivist in the Auschwitz/Birkenau archive.
“There are so many who come here and ask for papers, for proof. You see the man over there? He is here on the same mission as you are. I understand all the questions people have and that they want answers, but usually we don’t find anything. But I’ll have a look,” she said. “The number was 80162 you said?”
“Sit down,” said my wife. “Do you have to pace the room like that?”
“Please sit,” she pleaded. We had ridden our motorcycle through Europe to get some answers and now finally we were here, being told by the archivist not to expect anything. It was frustrating, to say the least.
“Sit down,” she said. “Please.”
“I cannot sit here in this place of death,” I said, and continued to pace.
“How strange!” the archivist said when she returned, an eternity later. “There is a document from Dr. Mengele’s archive where I found your mother’s number and even her name, and that she was 23 years old and from Hungary.
“Imagine that,” she stated, almost peeved.
The doctor who took lives instead of saving them – the Angel of Death’s private archive!
“It’s a unique document,” she continued. “It proves that he performed experiments on your mother!”
The Angel of Death, the doctor who promised to save lives when he finished his medical studies and instead performed lethal experiments on and killed innocent people.
“Not many people survived his experiments,” said the archivist.
His favourites were children who were identical twins, who he picked out from the prison transports. He let them thrive with good food and sleep before injecting them with a syringe of deadly virus or anything else that took his fancy. He then murdered both twins (or had someone do it for him) and allowed them to be autopsied. The result was sent to the university outside Berlin where he was employed. The people in the camp were nothing but guinea pigs for the Nazi regime in the name of their own twisted version of ”science.”
“The document with your mother’s name and number was stolen by a fellow prisoner just before the evacuation, to be used as evidence against Mengele. It’s a unique document,” the archivist repeated. “Unique.”
“Now you’re calmer,” my wife said to me. “Now the motorcycle trip through Europe has proved to be a jackpot.”
“That devil, Mengele,” I said, “the doctor who took innocent lives and treated people as interchangeable numbers, items, things, objects he could treat any way he wanted. May his name be stricken from human history.
“Do you know,” Mom once said “that Dr. Mengele kicked me and called me fucking jew bitch. Why did they always insult us like that?” Mom said, without waiting for an answer. ”They felt such contempt for us, the Germans there in the camps, whether they were doctors or ordinary soldiers. A bottomless contempt. We were nothing to them. We were lower than lice.”
”I had to sit on strange bottles in Mengele’s laboratory. I think there were dangerous substances in the bottles and I think they wanted to see how my body reacted to them. Maybe the cancer came from there?”
”What do I know.” she said. ”In any case, something was in those bottles.”
“See you in Paris after the war!,” he said, “the French photographer at Mengele’s laboratory, another prisoner allowed to live a bit longer due to the usefulness of his trade. He was the photographer who decided to open a back door, risking his life to let me out. We were two people whose eyes met and who gave each other hope and strength to live another day. He gave me the hope I needed and the strength to go on. We never saw each other again, he and I. I don’t know what happened to him. But just at that time, at that moment, we were alive – two young Jews at the laboratory of the Angel of Death, Dr. Mengele, there in the death camp, where the smoke from the chimneys in which our relatives disappeared and the sweet sickly smell of burning bodies met me, when the back door opened and released me.”
See you in Paris after the war
“It is the hope of something better, something living that makes us want to stay alive. Without hope, we would all have died there in Auschwitz/Birkenau. One hour at a time, one day at a time, one dream at a time, about a meeting in Paris and eyes locking for a fleeting moment with the promise of hope in a life-giving moment. I was filled with joy in the middle of the madness, the foul stench, the corpses and never ending death all around me.
“Never take away hope from anyone – that’s my message to you,” said my mother.
That’s the Jewish way, I thought. Protest by giving life. Give life at encounters with others and with respect for your fellow human being. Give life to each other during encounters where you both lift each other. You-encounters, not It-encounters, as Martin Buber describes in his books.
One woman and two doctors.
One doctor who gives life and one who takes life.
And the Jew who refused to give up hope – and who refused to die.
We all make our own choices, I thought.