Sadly, it is…
As my modest contribution to today’s observance, here is an excerpt from Tommy Mandl’s autobiographical novel Durst, Musik, Geheime Dienste (Thirst, Music, Secret Services). In it, Tommy describes the death of his father, on March 23, 1945, in Dachau-Kaufering IV.
I was breaking golden teeth out of the mouth of a corpse by forcing the tip of a long pair of scissors between the tooth and the gum. The yellow strips of metal came loose with a soft, squelching sound. The length of the scissors helps me exert more leverage, I thought for a split second. I then opened the scissors and drove one of the blades under the gum of the upper jaw. This time, the scissors offered no mechanical advantage. I had to place my left hand on the icy forehead of the corpse in order to hold it down, and, gripping the opened scissors in my right, I pulled until the crumbly motion indicated that the gum was beginning to give way. I damaged the gum, but no blood flowed from the wound.
I looked back and forth from the gold in my hand to the face of the dead man. I’ve broken the last bridge….What I did now is….irreversible.…
The bluish light that penetrated the interior of the block through the little window on the left mixed with the brown darkness from the right, where there was no source of light. The face of the dead man lay half-concealed in its own shadow; it was so alien to me that I stared at it with unbelieving fascination.
The heavy footfall of the food orderlies occurred behind the door to the right.
If he’d died a little later he could still have gotten his soup, I thought. There would have been some of it left for me – he could barely eat the past twenty-four hours anyway. But now, the food orderly barely glanced at the corpse, then handed me the bowl with soup. My hands shook so badly that I spilled some of the liquid on the blanket. It ran down the folds of the louse-ridden rag that covered the corpse, soaking in quickly. I hastily put the bowl down on the bench and spooned up what I could. I then drank the rest of the soup and returned the bowl. One had to eat quickly since each bowl was intended to be used by eight to ten inmates.
“Grab hold,” Avrum the block adjutant said, coming over to me. It was he who had lent me the scissors earlier. We pulled the blanket from the corpse – he at the feet, I at the head. Pointy, bent knees appeared: they reminded me of the hideous church paintings that had so morbidly fascinated me when I was younger. Interment, I thought.
A shiny track lay diagonally across the concave belly as if a slug had crawled there. Ejaculation at the moment of death, I had read somewhere.
“There is no such thing as a moment of death, only a gradual extinguishing of individual cerebral functions,” Dr. Markus Mandl, who was not related to us, had once said.
I shivered with the cold as Avrum and I carried the corpse to the door – he at the head, I at the feet now. This is the end. I’ll throw myself into the barbed wire. I hope the sentries shoot well, I thought as I returned to my place on the bench that ran the entire length the semi-subterranean block. I wrapped myself into my blanket with practiced, energy-saving movements. Icy cold air came at me from the window at the left. Until now, my father’s body had shielded me from it, but I had never realized this.
The end had actually begun two days ago, on my mother’s fiftieth birthday. If she was still alive, she was likewise in one of the many camps of the Third Reich. Dr. Mandl and I had congratulated my father soon upon awakening. I had been the originator of this grotesque ceremony – it was one of my desperate attempts to create the illusion of temporal progress. Time appeared to have come to a stop and even the knowledge that “now it is later than it was when I began to think this thought” was not sufficient to suppress the insistent agony of the now. My father had thanked us with an absent, thoughtful expression on his face. I searched for other things to do. The light in the block had been turned on only a few minutes earlier, and before us lay the endless waste of another day. I had developed during the months of the motionless here-and-now countless devices with which I terrorized both older men. I had thought up a system of “effortless exercises to maintain the range of motion of the extremities;” prisoners who do nothing but wait for death in the icy cold suffer from foreshortening of the tendons. After several weeks of huddling under blankets with their knees and arms pressed against their bellies, they can no longer stretch their knees or lift their arms. I had forced both my father and Dr. Mandl to participate in “seminars;” one would give a lecture and the other two would ask questions. Even though I rarely had anything of value to declaim upon, I could at least ask questions.
I tried to start a conversation. My father answered, but left a slip of the tongue uncorrected. A few minutes later he fell asleep, which was highly atypical for him.
“Markus, what is this supposed to mean?” I whispered to Dr. Mandl who lay to the right of me.
“Nothing,” he said. “Probably exhaustion due to malnutrition.”
I watched the sleeping man who lay between me and the window. He did not sleep long. I spoke to him again, and again he made slips of the tongue. I was suddenly overcome by indescribable against which I was wholly defenseless.
“His answers are completely logical, and his reactions as well,” I told myself, but it did not help. Then – anticipated yet unexpected – the elemental dread gripped me.
“I think I’ll wear my other suit today,” my father said, his face calm and friendly.
“Well, the other one…”
I tried to bind him to reality with the laughable chain of my logic.
“Describe the suit to me!”
He looked at me helplessly, then said: “Don’t get so upset…”
“Markus, you have to examine him.”
Dr. Mandl defended himself weakly. “There is nothing I can do. And here, in this cold…”
I did not let up. “Papa, please sit up. Markus would like to examine you.”
He sat up patiently and waited for Markus to unwrap himself from his blankets. Markus examined him as thoroughly as a naked, shivering doctor without any instruments can. He then crept under his covers again.
“Probably a stroke,” he said.
“What does that mean? Can you do anything?”
“Blood that flows from a broken vessel gradually floods individual parts of the brain. The flooded cells die immediately. Sometimes, the bleeding ceases spontaneously: then the blood is slowly absorbed. All depends on the location of the bleeding, which centers are affected, and the amount of blood. We can’t do anything – here or in a fully equipped hospital.”
My father fell asleep again after his examination. He woke up soon thereafter for some moments. His behavior was unchanged, but his ability to speak fluently and coherently quickly faded.
I feared this day: it and the following night grew to gargantuan proportions in my mind. I tortured my father with logical trick questions the meaninglessness of which was clear even to me. I took a piece of bread and inserted it in his mouth. He kept it there for a while and then spit it out. Shaking, I picked up the bread from his blanket and ate it. It occurred to me that, a few weeks ago, I had twice given him a slightly smaller bread portion than what I kept for myself. Perhaps those few bread molecules would have sufficed to increase decisively the resistance of the now-broken blood vessel wall.
I tried to sit him up, but he fended me off with a weak, pensive smile. What transpired inside him? Did he know what was going on? How could he leave me behind like this? I had told him months ago: “If you want me to survive, then you have to do everything in your power to survive yourself. I have no desire to leave the camp without you.”
Did he remember this? His speech centers may have been destroyed, but what about other parts of his brain? During the night, after the light bulb had been switched off, I tried to induce him to return from the regions where he wandered and where I could not follow it.
He suddenly began to speak. I could not understand him, but he repeated my name many a time, insistently, lovingly. I could understand nothing more of his rapid muttering. Was there, somewhere in metaphysical regions his spirit that registered, undestroyed and indestructible, everything that happened?
His speech became faster, and he repeated the name Tommy more often; he then stretched out and, in doing so, exposed part of his body. In panic, I tried to cover him again. He cried out.
‘The inhibitory centers are dead,’ I thought bitterly. Dr. Mandl had told me a lot about the functions of the brain.
The stream of words ceased. He lay stretched out before me, his left leg and the upper part of his truck exposed to the inhuman cold. His mouth was slightly asymmetrical, and his brown eyes stared preternaturally from the waxen stubble-covered face. The shine in those eyes was indescribable and incomprehensible: were they trying to tell me something?
A raspy, rattling sound emanated from the bare chest. “Lung edema,” Markus said. “A purely mechanical phenomenon. He does not feel anything,” he added.
The rattle grew loader.
I tried to cover him. The left side of his body was ice-cold to my touch. The lice from his blankets had already begun to migrate into mine the previous morning.
“They are very sensitive to temperature variations,” Markus said.
The rattle ceased. Markus stumbled out of his blankets again. “It is the end,” he said.
“You have to say the prayer for the dead,” said an inmate, approaching me and glaring at me threateningly.
“I can’t. I never learned it.”
“Disgraceful. That is his fault, not yours. I will say it, and you repeat it after me.”
“Does he have gold teeth?” another asked. “You have to break them out. It could save your life.”
“I won’t do that.”
“There is a special detail that does nothing but extract gold teeth. If you don’t take the gold the SS will. Here, you can use my scissors,” Avrum said and handed them to me.
“Why did I do, it?” I thought bitterly as I lay under the blanket, clutching Avrum’s scissors.
“Thomas,” Avrum stood before me. “They have come for your father.”
I crept from under the blanket and went to the exit. Two spindly men from the corpse handling detail had spread a blanket on the floor and laid my father’s body on it. They lifted it and bore it away, and it swung from side to side as they went. I returned to my place and gave Avrum his scissors back.
Tommy and his father were transported from the Terezín ghetto to Auschwitz on September 28, 1944 and then ultimately to several of the Kaufering subcamps of Dachau. Unbeknownst to Tommy at the time, only Tommy had been selected for the transport on that fateful September day. His father had volunteered to go along to be able to protect his son. Tommy had only found out about it when he was reunited with his mother after the war.