Prof. Koenig put up a colour reproduction on the overhead projector. At first it looked like a diagram of molecules, something from Sarah’s grade 12 chemistry textbook: pairs of circles that linked to other circles. Some were open, some had red crosses, some were filled or partially filled with black or grey tones. The heading at the top in German, Die Nürnberger Gesetze, The Nuremberg Laws.
The Nuremberg Laws codified the Nazi’s anti-Semitic policies. The chart showed the pseudo-scientific method used to identify Jews. Prof. Koenig gently tapped the screen with a wooden pointer. A person who had four German grandparents was considered to be Deutschblütiger, of ‘German or kindred blood.’ A person who had three or four grandparents who were Jewish was considered to be a Jude, a Jew. In between were those categorized as Mischlinge, mongrels of ‘mixed blood.’
False science. False categories. What is a Jew?
Criteria were further established to distinguish more finely between Jews and Mischlinge: affiliation with a Jewish religious community, marriage to another Jew, whether one’s parents were married or one was born outside of wedlock, the dates of marriage and birth. These refinements were necessary to establish racial ‘purity.’ If you were a Jew, what kind of Jew would you be? This was what the chart wanted to establish. A true Jew, a full Jew, a half Jew of the first or the second degree? These were categories that subsumed every other thing you were. You were a Jew by blood, not belief; blood was what counted. Converting didn’t necessarily save you. Atheism didn’t save you. Jewish blood. Were you Jewish to your bones? Were you Jewish in your flesh? Under the Nuremberg laws, back in 1935, before the war had even begun, a Jew wasn’t a German citizen, a Jew couldn’t marry a non-Jew, a Jewish doctor couldn’t treat non-Jews, a Jewish lawyer couldn’t practise law. And soon, these gradations of identity would determine not just your civil rights, but whether you lived or died.
Prof. Koenig was showing a slide of a photograph taken during the liberation of Buchenwald. As always, the room darkened and then brightened. Sarah blinked. The photograph was taken on Monday, April 16, 1945, Prof. Koenig explained, five days after troops from the 80th Division of the American Army entered the camp. The photographer was an American private by the name of Miller.
The first thing Sarah noticed in the photo was the man standing on the right, leaning against a wooden post in the bunkhouse. His face was framed by a short black beard. His flesh was tight over his bones, and he was naked, but he was holding a striped shirt in front of himself. For modesty’s sake.
Those pyjamas. How ridiculously innocent those striped uniforms were. Pyjamas like her father’s, Abe, wandering around the kitchen on Saturday mornings, a cup of coffee in his hand. Wiesel must have been just a few years younger than Abe. She pushed the image of her father away, looked back at the slide.
The standing man was looking upwards, slightly, to the right. Almost everyone else in the photograph was looking directly at the camera.
All right, then. She was going to look herself. She was going to look into each face: this is a person and this is person and this another person. They were not slave labourers, they were not survivors. They were not about to die, they were not those who had just escaped death. Words would not swallow who they were. They were themselves.
There was a young man on the bottom bunk at the far left and he looked both frightened and hopeful, astounded by the salvation that he was being offered. Sarah knew by now that the boy had reason to be afraid, because many people who were liberated still died. Some died from the food the well-meaning liberating soldiers gave them, their starvation so extreme that their bodies went into shock when they ate. Others were just too worn out from malnutrition or typhus or TB to make it through more than a few days, even with the help of the people who’d liberated them.
Only three men were turned away from the camera, two of them, whose heads were raised – there must have been something other than the camera to look at in the room, perhaps the one man who, Sarah now thought, was so bravely able to stand. She saw now the slight smile on the upright man’s face. The third of the three turned away from the camera had his head down, only his dark hair visible, a blanket tucked tenderly around his neck. Maybe he was too weak to lift his head.
She saw suddenly that many of the men had something shining with them, a shining metal object set on the surface of the wooden bunk. It was their food bowl, the only possession most prisoners had, a food bowl which they also used as a pillow. A man on the second level of bunks had his arm held protectively over the bowl. He seemed at first to be wearing rimless glasses, but it was just the bags under his eyes and the wise arc of his raised eyebrows. He had something white wrapped around his head, a turban, or bandage. Perhaps he had been wounded. Perhaps he was observant and at last, after liberation, he was allowed to cover his head, and the white fabric was all he had.
Because of the way the photograph had been framed, Sarah was sure that there were men in the top level of the bunks who had been cut off, whose faces were not in the picture. She wanted to imagine their faces too.
“We have detailed information on the contents and origin of this photograph,” Prof. Koenig was explaining, “because it is held in the American National Archive, and so the date it was taken, the name of the photographer, are known. We know also that the man at the far right, the far back of the lowest level of the bunks, was Max Hamburger. He did in fact recover, though he was very ill with tuberculosis at the time the photograph was taken. He recovered and became a psychiatrist in the Netherlands.
“And,” Prof. Koenig went on, “on the second row of bunks, seventh from left, is Elie Wiesel. He was 16 years old.”
The room darkened and then brightened again, and they were shown a close-up of Wiesel’s face. He looked frightened and serious and sad at the same time.
That boy’s face.
Author’s Note: In the photograph of Elie Wiesel mentioned on page 63, the Yad Vashem on-line archive has the following information: The naked man standing on the right is probably Chaim Dovid Halberstam who was born in Nowy Sacz, Poland. He was the business partner of Gershon Blonder Kleinman. He survived and after the war he settled in America. Bottom bunk level: There is contradictory identification of several of the individuals in this photo, including the man furthest left on the bottom bunk level. He may be Gershon Blonder Kleinman, born on 06/05/1928 or 05/06/1928 in Nowy Sacz, Poland, who was an inmate in Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, who settled in America after the war (identified by his son Hudson Manor Terrace). However the Holocaust Museum in Washington identifies him as Michael Nikolas Gruner. A third source identifies him as Joseph Reich and the man beside him as his brother Isaac Reich. The man fourth from the left has been identified as Max Hamburger. Second from the bottom bunk level: The man third from left has been identified as Losh Wertenberg, later known as Yehuda Doron. However, according to other sources (Yaakov Marton) this man is Jeno Marton. The man fourth from the left has been identified as Abraham Hipler or as Berek Rosencajg from Lodz. The man seventh on the left is indeed Elie Wiesel. Third from the bottom bunk level: The man third from the left has been identified as either Ignacz (Isaac) Berkovicz or as Abraham Baruch. The man fifth from the left is Naftali G. Furst. Top bunk level: Mel Mermelstein has been identified as the person at the far right. The man second from the left has been identified as Perry Shulman from Klimitov, Poland.
[Sarah] finds no record of an apology, no claim of responsibility by the French government after the war. Rien de rien.
What she does find is a photograph of a family: the father in his dark suit and tie, his face under the fedora obscured in shadow, a yellow star stitched to his jacket pocket; two little girls who remind Sarah of photos of her mother when she was a girl, one in a neat plaid skirt cut fashionably on the bias, her hairband tidy. It’s hard to see in the print, but it looks like the mother is bent over beside the bleacher, probably reaching for some food she packed. Yes, it’s the mother, there’s a patch of light caught on the back of her hair, one hand. The dark cloth of her coat. One strand of light. Their little brother is in his suit jacket with his yellow star stitched to the left breast pocket, bedrolls on the bench beside them, one, two, three, four, five, one each. A wooden horse on the bench as well, just within reach. He looks to be about five or six. It’s probably his favourite toy, the one he decided to take with him.
Who took the picture? And how did it get into the book? There’s nothing in the caption that gives the names of the family. She wishes she knew their names. That would help. It wouldn’t help them but it would help her.