Highlights of the heartbreaking book of our colleague Jean-Marie Montali ‘We are the voices of the dead, the last deportees testify’, which has just been published by Le Cherche Midi. 75 years after the liberation of the camps, these testimonies from survivors, which resound like voices from beyond the grave, describe the unspeakable and name with singular sobriety the absolute horror of the Holocaust.
By Jean-Marie Montali*
In my job I have seen and heard, like many other journalists, a lot of crap. Many of us have seen more dead people than we would have liked to see: Destroyed, shot, hanged, burned… There are many ways to kill people. And all these ways of killing and dying, it makes piles of corpses of all colours, religions and ages, men and women, all over the world, and piles of survivors howling rivers of tears.
As far as I’m concerned, I don’t remember the faces of these dead people, or anything else about them. They were dead, that’s all. I didn’t cry for them. I forgot them, that’ s all. I could invent myself soul tremors, moral concussions and sadness to avoid looking like a bully. I’ll come and wring all this out at your feet with the eyes of a beaten dog, just to look like a sensitive guy and all. And I could tell you that all these deaths haunt me. But no, no, no. I forgot them. No one, you understand, wants to live with the dead.
I forgot that kid from Los Angeles, shot in the head with a bullet that wasn’t even meant for him. Those overdose deaths in Johannesburg. This woman beaten to death by her bastard fiancé. This Bosnian father, mad with grief after the death of his two sons at Brčko. He killed himself.
I forgot these bodies in Somalia, rotting where they had fallen, by the tens and hundreds, in dust and indifference. Those in Kabul, those in Sarajevo, those in Mogadishu. The others, in Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines and Elsewhere.
I forgot the body of that old man on whom I stumbled in the semi-darkness of a Baidoa morgue, before spreading myself over other bodies thrown there, on the floor, because we didn’t know where to put them. There were so many of them. So much. I threw up on the bodies. An employee hosed down. I went out. Outside, other bodies were piled up against the walls, one on top of the other, and it went up, up, up, death in bricks, I had never seen that before.
I forgot the little fruit delivery boy from the Panjshir Valley. He jumped on a mine. His name was Haroun. I mean, I think his name was Haroun. I forgot about that other father in Pakistan, an Afghan refugee who spent all his nights lying on his children’s graves so that scavengers would not come and dig them up and eat them. He would put three tulips on the grave, one for each of his children.
I forgot about that little girl killed by cancer at the Institut Curie. Her mother caressed her hair very gently and we, the photographer and I, blubbered like calves.
I forgot them all. Buried deep in my memory, with a lid on it so it doesn’t overflow.
Anyway, I’m saying all this so that you understand that, in the long run, you learn to measure your sensitivity.
And then I’ve been in Israel for 10 days. I am preparing a book – and perhaps a film – on Holocaust survivors. For 10 days, from morning to evening, I have been meeting several of them for hours on end, one-on-one. These fragile little old ladies, these little old men who can more or less stand up and waver seriously on their bases, were born in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Germany, France and elsewhere. The degree of enthusiasm put into the killing had, in a way, local peculiarities: people did not kill in the same way in Romania as in Poland or Latvia. It also depended on the degree of anti-Semitism and collaboration of the countries concerned.
Today, these few survivors are afraid that these things will be forgotten. That they may be reproducing. They want to tell, to testify. Otherwise, who will remember those who were exterminated when they are no longer there? So they talk and talk and talk again. Sometimes they hesitate a little. Not that they stumble over their memories, but they hesitate in the choice of words: which ones to choose to describe a horror that humanity had never known before? Which ones to choose to be credible? Because they live with that too: the fear of not being believed. Who could believe the incredible? And which ones to choose to make the inaudible audible without shocking the interlocutors? How to talk about the unspeakable, how to make the Shoah understood?
They dream of the Shoah and wake up at night with the cries of others or with their own, with the faces of the disappeared. A mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a neighbour… They remember that. Of course they remember it. Everything: the raid, the screams, the fear, the dogs, the train, the selection, the shower, the shearing, the nudity, the cold, the hunger, the slave labour, the bodies crammed into the barracks, the cries of the kapos, the lice, the Mengele experiences… And death. Death, everywhere, all the time. The gallows. The shots. The gas. The smoke from the crematoria. Ashes, snow from hell. And then again, always, the face of a mother, father, sister or brother. The faces of thousands, millions of others exterminated in the camps. So yes, they remember and live every day and every hour with their memories and the ghosts of the innocent.
They remember the months spent in the ghettos, the yellow star, the humiliation, the months hidden in the forest, the hunting of Jews, the hunger, the hunger they talk about all the time and which still obsesses them today. They talk about the shootings on the edge of mass graves, all over Eastern Europe, at the bottom of a forest, on the banks of the Danube, on the banks of the Baltic Sea, above a ravine, in a park in the middle of a city…
They are still talking and talking. They talk and protect me. There are things they don’t dare to tell me, because they are worse than worse and they don’t want to shock me, seeing that I’m already in apnoea. And I would like to take them in my arms and I know that I will never forget these faces. And never in the more than thirty years I have been in this business have I been so moved.
Raphaël Bar-Lev was born in 1930 in Budapest. He spoke in a soft voice, his eyes lost in the past as if he turned them back to find a way to his past. Here was his school, at 44 Weszleny street, and the little square where, as a kid, he sometimes hung out with the wrong crowd but also where, casually, they would flirt with the not all so prudent girls in the neighbourhood. Here was the Rombach synagogue, there was his house in the heart of the ghetto, and here was the Swiss House, a few streets away, where his family and other Jewish families had found shelter. It was there that the Hungarian Nazi militiamen of the Arrow Cross Party arrested them, 117 Jews in all, on the night of January 1, 1945. They were arrested, beaten up, their belongings stolen. Then, they were stripped bare and tied up two by two. Raphaël was tied up to a stranger, his parents together. 117 Jewish men, women and children were forced to walk to the banks of the Danube river, almost naked; and they were shot. Raphael managed to jump into the river before being shot. The river was frozen but the corpses from previous executions cushioned his fall. Half-naked, he crawled over the bodies to the sewers then fled. He was the only survivor among the 117 Jews shot that day. Rapahël Bar-Lev passed away last December.
Esther Lieber was born in 1936 in Poland. On October 4, 1942, her father was shot in the head because he was Jewish. Then, her mother, two of her sisters and other cousins were shot dead by the SS in a forest where they had been hiding for months. Esther and another of her sisters – Rachel – survived by hiding for more than two years in the woods. Living in the woods, being chased by hunters of Jews and wary of men like animals. Three long years in the forest. Three years! 1,095 days. When she talked about that, it was like she was still there. “I was like stifled”, she said, before taking my hand: “and then there were all these far too violent things that I don’t want to tell you about.”
Rita kasimov was born in 1934 in Turmont (Poland). In early 1942, her family, together with a few thousand other Jews, were crowded into the Braslaw ghetto. Living conditions there were obviously almost unbearable. People died of typhus, pneumonia, exhaustion and starvation. Six families, including Rita’s, were sent out to the Gestapo to work in their military barracks. They were called “working Jews”. They did not murder them right away. They could still serve. A Catholic priest warned these families that they had to flee before being killed. Rita’s father believed him; the other families did not. And they were killed. Rita’s family fled. Vladski, a Catholic peasant, hid them in a hole under a barn. They spent 22 months there before fleeing. Almost two years in a hole that they called “Our Grave”, before fleeing to the Russian frontlines. The first thing Rita saw when she got closer were the tracks of the Russian tanks. She kissed them: her father, in their hole, kept saying that the Russians would save them, that they were like messiahs. And the little girl that she was really believed in miracles. Rita, her mother, father, brother and sister were the last Jews of Turmont.
Sophie Leibovitz is 93 years old. She was deported in 1941 from her native Romania to the Ukrainian ghettos with all her family. She survived for four years subjected to slavery conditions. Four years was a long time, long enough to see her father die of typhus, her mother drink from a puddle before she died of exhaustion, and her brother die under the blows of Ukrainian guards. She spent those four years without shoes, her feet wrapped in rags. In winter, the ground was so hard that the gravedigger shovels bounced back like balloons, as if the earth itself did not want those unfortunate Jews. To bury the dead, they first had to light fires to warm and soften the ground it and wait until spring to remove the bodies and place them in deeper graves.
Myriam Harel was born on November 19, 1924, in Lodz (Poland). In February 1940, she was locked up in the ghetto with 200,000 other Jews. 45,000 would die of diseases, hunger, the cold and mistreatment. Her father was the first one to be killed. SS men made him dig his own grave before shooting him down. On August 8, 1944, Myriam was rounded up, put on a train and sent to Birkenau. She was 19 years old, 1.55 m tall and weighed 27 kg. They shaved off her hair. They made her to stay naked. They hit her, threw bloodstained rags over her so she would dress up. She spent three weeks in Birkenau before being sent off to Bergen-Belsen. She already knew everything: the way people were being sorted, the gas chambers, the crematory ovens. Weeks went by. A convoy of Dutch Jewish girls arrived to Birkenau. There was a little girl, slightly younger than Myriam. She sat alone, crying. Myriam chatted her up. They befriended each other, shared the little they had. Not much though. A few berries, a piece of bread, a bit of love, a lot of humanity. Myriam got on less well with Margot, Anne’s sister. Margot was more introvert and stricter. With Anne they would talk about Victor Hugo and Dostoyevsky. And then, one day, Anne was no longer there. She died of typhus … Years later, Myriam saw a photo of her friend on the cover of a book. It was Anne Frank’s Diary. One last thing: 70 (seventy) people from Myriam’s extended family were killed during the Holocaust.
Here is number 52719. It is written on his Buchenwald “Häftling-Personal-Karte”: 52c 719. This is the name those ‘beasts’ gave him. 52719. At the top, in the middle of the card, there is the mention “Jude”, written on the stamp pad. He is Jew n° 52,719. I think it is pronounced Zweiundfünfzig Tausend Siebenhundert Neunzehn. On this inmate personal card, there is also his height: 161 cm. The shape of his face: oval. The colour of his eyes: grey. The colour of his hair: brown. The shape of his mouth (full), his nose (straight) and the condition of his teeth (good). No particular sign is mentioned and the weight is not indicated, but it is specified that the detainee speaks Yiddish and Hungarian. In the identity photo stapled to the document, you can see the well-drawn face of a teenage boy, his forehead high and his head shaved. He was careful to look at the lens and not to give any expression to his face, but the eyes are sad, perhaps fearful. The neck emerges from the striped pyjama jacket he wore from Auschwitz and the collar of which can be seen. This convict outfit was the only thing that belonged to him. If he died, it would be given to a newcomer. All there was to do was to change the number on the jacket. Before becoming number 52719 he was called Laszlo Lazar, son of Jenö and Rosalia (called Rosie), grandson of Mor and Sari, brother of Aharon. From Oradea to Auschwitz Birkenau, the trip lasted three days. On June 3, the convoy landed on the famous “ramp”. Men had to be separated from women. Families were split up with butts and whips. Dogs were barking, officers were howling, people were falling, children and mothers were crying and men were cracking. There were dozens and hundreds of testimonials about people killed on that ramp and babies with having their heads smashed against the wagons. However, Laszlo had not seen anything like that. He saw, a little further on the opposite platform, an orchestra playing music … Welcome to hell.
Moshe Kravitz was born in 1931 in Lithuania. In July 1941, he was locked up in a ghetto with more than 30,000 other Jews. In July 1944, no more than 8,000 were still alive when they were loaded onto cattle wagons. He was first deported to Landsberg, near Dachau, with his parents and three of his uncles, then to Auschwitz and Birkenau. He was tattooed with the number 2841 b. The Red Army approached, Death March to Buchenwald. When the camp was liberated, the Americans found him on a pile of bodies but he was still alive even if his “soul was kind of dead”. His father and mother and two of his uncles, one of whom was a hero of the First World War, died in Auschwitz.
Hia Kaspi was born in 1933 in Iasi (Romania). In Romania, Jews got used to the fact that they were disliked, sometimes more, sometimes less but no one could imagine what would happen next. Imagine, for example, the pogrom of June 27, 1941, which was one of the bloodiest in the history of the Jewish people, even though they did experience a lot: more than 13,000 dead including men, women and children. Then, a few days later, men were rounded up, including Nahman, Hia’s father, and two of his brothers: Yossef (16) and Shimon (19). Yossef was the first to die, shot by an SS while walking towards the station. A few more were shot before crowding the survivors onto cattle wagons, 100 per wagon. They were shuttled without water, air, food for days in a row. First standing up, then literally sitting on corpses. They were drinking their sweat and urine for days; that is when Shimon passed away. He died of exhaustion. His body, and those of others, were thrown out on the edge of the railroad tracks to leave a little more space for the survivors…
* We are the voices of the dead, the last deportees testify, Le Cherche Midi, Paris, October 2020.