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Almost nothing

On the lingering trauma of the shadow of Auschwitz, from a third-generation survivor

I know almost nothing about him. On the forearm, he had a number tattooed, about which he never spoke. With time, the number faded and the skin grew old. Nobody paid attention to him, nobody asked.

In April 1923, in Vilnius, spring was in full swing. Trees were green, birds sang together with girls, there were concerts and theatrical performances. Mela’s contractions started early in the morning. Her husband, Adam, took her to the hospital, leaving a three-year Krysia at home. At noon, Stanislaw was born. He was healthy and curious about the world. He ate a lot and developed well. Three years later, Irenka was born. Then the family moved to Brest on the Bug. The construction industry was booming there, a lot of institutions were opened — their buildings have survived until today. They were living at 9 Niezalezna Street, which no longer exists.

Stanislaw started school there. He was watched by his father, a teacher and officer in the Polish army. The mother was a housewife. In 1932, Hania was born.

The family was happy. They read books together, went for walks, spent time talking.

Everything changed after the war broke out.

I know almost nothing about him. In 1940, he came to Auschwitz in a cramped, dirty wagon. It was hot and they had nothing to drink. They were crammed into the train, which left Warsaw, waiting for the end of the journey. They didn’t know where they were going and why. Would they be shot? Would they be deported for labour? He was 17-years-old, he had not yet passed his school exams, had not fallen in love with any girl.

Irenka was also caught and deported to the Sudeten. She survived. After the war, she moved to Czechoslovakia and never returned to Poland. The only way the family could contact her were letters.

Upon arrival in Auschwitz, they were taken to the bath, disinfected and had numbers tattooed. His name did not matter anymore. “I was hit on the head a lot there and now I have memory lapses. I‘m lame, I’ve lost all toes of my left foot, I have a crooked spine and I have to wear a corset. I have second-degree disability” — this is the only information we have about Stanislaw’s time in the camp. He wrote it on an application to the German office in charge of paying compensation to the victims of the Third Reich. He submitted the paper in 1987. I was 5-years-old.

I know almost nothing about him. I found a document about his time in Auschwitz in the German archives. I called Stanislaw’s daughter, who is my aunt. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why am I only finding out now?” I asked accusingly. “I didn’t know either,” she said. “My father — his son — also knew nothing.”

We didn’t know when he left the camp. I have a picture of him. Taken just after the war in Slupsk, where he tried to build a new life for himself. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked, in an oversized suit. His sad eyes looking off in the distance. He never finished any school. He wasn’t able to learn. Memory lapses recurred. With time, he no longer could distinguish reality from fiction shown on a TV screen. He drank. He beat his wife, my grandmother. He couldn’t talk. He didn’t read. He didn’t feel anything.

I know almost nothing about him. After the war, he never met his parents or sisters. Each of them was in another city. Letters came less and less frequently. The tattoo was fading.

I have only one picture with him. I am a 6-month-old baby and he is holding me in his arms. It’s June, and he is wearing a shirt with long sleeves. He lived far away, we met only a few times. He died in 2000 of lung cancer. I didn’t go to the funeral.

I know almost nothing about him. I only know that he had the number tattooed on his forearm, and I have it in my blood, in my genes. When I first went to Auschwitz four years ago, I had not yet learned that he had been there before me. I stayed the night in a guest room near the museum. It was quiet, like it was when inmates were in the frequent lockdown of “Lager Sperre.” Through the window I saw the barbed wire surrounding the camp. He had to look at it as well. I thought then that life after Auschwitz did not make sense; that it’s unfair that we live here, we have fun, and they died. Only later my psychologist helped me realize that I was not living like I could if Auschwitz had not happened. That place is in me and with me all the time.

I know almost nothing about him.

About the Author
Katarzyna Markusz is a journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Jewish.pl and a correspondent of JTA. She is doing research about Jewish life in Sokolow-Podlaski, Poland before and during the WWII.
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