In 1953 the West German government offered reparations to Jewish Holocaust survivors. But as Göran Rosenberg explains in A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, it did so grudgingly. Claimants were required to prove that their suffering at the hands of the Nazis had diminished their capacity to work by at least 30%. They had to submit sworn witness statements and other documentation that was difficult, even impossible to come by. Yet Rosenberg’s father was undeterred by these bureaucratic humiliations.
Dawid Rozenberg was born in Łódź, interned in its infamous ghetto, and just before its liquidation was deported, first to Auschwitz and then to a number of other camps. After the war he made his way to Sweden where at first he seemed to thrive. Not only did he live near his eldest brother, Natek, who improbably was at his side throughout the ordeal (they were the only two members of their family to survive), but even more astonishingly he also managed to relocate his childhood sweetheart, Halinka, herself a camp survivor, to Sweden.
But the point of this wonderful, incisive book is that there are no triumphant Holocaust stories. Despite all his efforts, Rosenberg’s father was denied reparations. And in seeking redress for past suffering, he only caused himself more. Yet Rosenberg understands why his father was so insistent on applying: he wanted acknowledgement, not money. Someone like Dawid Rozenberg, even once he became the Swedish citizen David Rosenberg, was an inconvenient reminder of events the postwar world preferred to forget. The German name for reparation—Wiedergutmachung, making things good or right—symbolized a desire to draw a line under the past that extended far beyond Germany.
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz—part history, part memoir, part essay on the meaning of survival—insists that the Holocaust didn’t end in 1945. The book challenges the powerful redemptive narrative offered by even official histories. Consider the permanent exhibit of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It begins with the liberation of concentration camps by US soldiers before flashing back to the rise of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the 1930s, as if to reassure visitors that the story they are about to hear, no matter how horrifying, will come right in the end. But Dawid Rozenberg’s experiences prove otherwise.
To survive until liberation was of course astonishing, the confluence of so many contingencies that we are often tempted to speak of miracles when we’re really talking about chance. Like most survivors, Rosenberg’s father was deported to the camps in 1944, when the Germans found themselves in desperate need of slave labor for their faltering war effort. The healthiest prisoners were “selected” and sent on to satellite work camps rather than gassed immediately. From Auschwitz, Rosenberg’s father was sent to a camp operated by a truck manufacturer near Braunschweig. When the Allies bombed the camp at the end of March 1945, he was sent from one satellite camp to another until in early May he was liberated from truly desperate circumstances in the camp at Wöbbelin (there are records of prisoners eating each other).
Guided by letters his father wrote to his mother in 1946, Rosenberg retraces his father’s journey across northern Germany in late-1944 and early-1945. What he finds confirms recent scholarship: the camps were much more pervasive than popular memory suggests. Auschwitz and a handful of other large camps might be the preferred sociocultural metonyms for the Holocaust, but there were in fact more than 42,000 ghettos and camps across Europe. Rosenberg calls the system of camps and subcamps that developed from the alliance of Nazi ideology and war production “camp archipelagoes.” He is a vivid cartographer of this murderous landscape, which didn’t simply disappear with the German capitulation.
After liberation Rosenberg’s father was sent to the Displaced Persons camp at Bergen-Belsen. Jewish life in Europe had been so thoroughly destroyed that, having nowhere to return to and unable to find somewhere to go, some former prisoners lived there for months, even years. (The camp closed only in 1950.) But Dawid Rozenberg was again fortunate. After only a few weeks he and some other survivors from Lodz were given Swedish visas. Even there Rosenberg’s father found himself in a series of work and resettlement camps before finally settling in Södertälje, where he found work for himself and his newly-arrived wife and raised a family that included the boy who would grow up to write this book. The son flourished in Sweden; it was his home. But the father would never have a home again; this mental statelessness took its toll on him. As the father’s mental and physical health problems worsened, he was sent to an asylum where he committed suicide on July 22, 1960.
Home—“the place where you first put words to the world and didn’t have to say all that much to be understood”—is central to Rosenberg’s consideration of his father’s death. Home allows people to make sense of themselves: it gives them the conditions for intelligibility. It is as though people whose home has been destroyed have no language. Rosenberg’s father struggled to write even a paragraph in the statement of experience required in the reparations application, perhaps for the same reason that he would always say in his letters to Rosenberg’s mother that he didn’t want to “bore her.” “To bore,” Rosenberg interprets his father to mean, “is to tell someone something you don’t want to burden her with…. To speak of the unbearable.” The son sympathizes with the father’s reticence, but adds that silence isn’t an option: “reparation demands words for everything, even for things for which there are no words, or at any rate, no words that can break through the confusions of languages.”
Those confusions aren’t just the ones that come from shuttling between the German of the statement and the Yiddish and Polish of the father’s childhood, or the Swedish of his adulthood. They are the confusions that come from profoundly incommensurate experiences; they are the chasms not just between perpetrators and victims but also between generations, between those who survived atrocities and those who don’t want or don’t know how to hear about them.
This incommensurability, Rosenberg concludes, is the difference between surviving and living. Paradoxically, surviving inhibits living. Survivors experience the world only according to past experience whereas everyone else, the living, understands the world in light of a future they ceaselessly look towards. Survivors could rejoin the living if the living would only acknowledge the past that traumatized the survivor. But the living are bored and embarrassed by the past, frightened it will threaten their success and development. Rosenberg uses this dichotomy to understand his father’s breakdown and suicide: “Not being able to take the step from surviving to living, always having to live with your survival as the central element of your existence, is a kind of insanity, I suppose, even if it’s not necessarily the survivors who are insane.”
Sensitivity like this makes A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz a particularly intelligent and moving example of what the scholar Marianne Hirsch calls the literature of postmemory: “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before.” The most famous book of Holocaust postmemory is Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. Interestingly, Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, an Auschwitz survivor, also went to Sweden after the war. He tells his son that he only left Sweden for America at his wife’s insistence, and later regretted it, saying in his inimitable style “never I had it again so good.”
Vladek might well be refashioning the past to bemoan his present circumstances: nothing suggests that geography matters when it comes to escaping a traumatic past. Still the differences between Vladek Spiegelman’s and David Rosenberg’s Swedish experiences remind us that every survivor’s story is different. Yet the story of the children of survivors is, if not the same, then similar. Even though Rosenberg’s book is differently structured than Spiegelman’s—because of his father’s death, he cannot include the present-day interaction between father and son that is so central to Maus—both writers are highly conscious of their own vexed, even antagonistic relationships to their fathers’ difficult (although outwardly successful) postwar lives.
Like Maus, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz shows with instructive clarity that “survivor” is no enviable title. The children of survivors know what it means to have a home. But their parents know only what it means to lose one.