Joseph Bialot: It's in winter that the days get longer
Joseph Bialot (or: Bialobroda) was born in Warsaw in 1923. At age 7, he emigrated to Paris with his parents. In 1944, he found himself in a round-up and was sent to Auschwitz. He stayed there from the latter part of August 1944 to the liberation of the camp, on January 27th, 1945. After the war, he returned to Paris and worked with his parents in the garments' business. Age 55, he started writing crime novels, which were very successful. He waited to be 79 to publish his memories of Auschwitz: C'est en hiver que les jours rallongent (It's in winter that the days get longer...), in 2002. He died in Paris in 2012.
To my knowledge, this significant text has not been published in English. I am quoting and translating here a few pages, on my own, in order to bring them to the English-speaking public. (And hoping that some publisher may get the hint...)
What is Kalos?
Remembering the liberation of Auschwitz
Saturday, January 27th, 1945.
Weather cold and dry. The winter sun lights up the camp.
That’s the day when I get the bright idea of burying crates of pasta in front of block 1. Yes, I got the idea into my head that, if the situation prolonged itself, we would be running out of food. For a stretch of time the length of which I am unable to remember, armed with a pickaxe, I fought against the frozen soil. The iron end bounced and bounced, made the bones in my hands quiver, and I, doggedly as if I had a kapo breathing down my neck, went on digging. In the end, getting to bury only one crate. The Poles, when the time of the big loot came, must have thought that there was a treasure buried there.
Block 19. The stench endures with its old accomplices, filth and death. At every level, they are dying. Whiningly. Praying. Silently. But all alone, all.
A man crashes in from the outside, with mad eyes.
-The Russians! The Russians! The Russians are here!
It’s a roar echoing from bed to bed, from moribund to moribund, from cripple to cripple: “The Russians are here. Die Russen sind hier! “
All the valid splash outside, through the door and through the ground-floor windows.
The street stretches under the shining sun. Along the farthest block, a single line of soldiers is advancing. A patrol. The avant-garde of a gigantic army which we were soon to discover.
They were marching in an Indian file, mutually covering one another, almost invisible in the snow landscape, under the camouflage of white sheets covering their heads, one finger on the trigger of their “camembert” machine guns, so called because of the shape of their magazines. Their movements are cautious. For them, this is war, and what a war it is…
The rumors amplifies: Die Russen! Die Russen!
The first pajamas, finally joining up with them, briefly hesitate then, in an irresistible rush, they throw themselves around the soldiers’ necks.
More uniforms appear at the entrance of the camp, advancing, they become innumerable. The whole universe which was destined to be a slave to the giants of the Great Reich marches up in front of us: Asian faces, slit eyes, black manes, blonde soldiers with high cheekbones, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, White Russians, mountaineers from the Urals, Caucasians, Tartars and Mongols, men of the steppes and of the taiga, denizens of the deserts and soldiers of the ice sheets.
The slaves are in good shape from all appearances in their winter outfits, with their felt-and-leather boots and their padded combat dress.
Winter is their element. Napoleon got a taste of it.
From all the blocks, the moribund are gathering. Some half-dressed, despite the cold. Bent to the ground by an indeterminate ill, a pajama is walking forward. He is grimacing with pain, but he pitter-patters towards the Russians, he touches them, feels them, kisses the fabric of their uniform jackets. The “Ivans” of the Red Army look at him, smiling.
Inmates which had been shut away for years, relics from all the Saxo, Buchenwald, Oranienburg, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen and other Neuengamme, men who could no longer cry, burst out in sobs. An incomprehensible rumor made out of German words, French, Magyar words, Flemish, Polish, an insane jargon, a chant, a threnody without a music, of which no one knows the text, runs among the men.
On the morning of January 27th, I have seen the dead come alive, at least in appearance. They even talked to each other! “There is a time for love, and a time for hate, a time to live and a time to die…” During this very brief instant, all of Auschwitz’ pajamas, all origins confounded, the Blacks, the Reds, the Purple, the Pink, even the rare rank-less Greens who had stayed on, the Jews and the Christians, the Hungarians and the Polacks, the French and the Germans, Czechs and Dutch, the communists and the nationalists, the delirious, the ratiocinating, those who, hardly free were about to kick the bucket and those who were still standing on their feet, all these and all those I
am forgetting loved each other.
Now there’s a flood of soldiers spilling onto the Lager.
Some of the lags come and go, denying the evidence, they keep on stringing senseless words. I have never since seen such glances. Never. To which is added incredulity.
-Do you really think that we’re free?
-Are these Russians? You sure?
-And the SS? Where are the SS?
And then the man, distrustfully, returns to the soldiers, tries to speak to them in French, in German. The grunt understands nothing, smiles and lets himself be hugged or squeezed in the thin arms of the guys he has just pulled out from the charnel.
In one corner, two old-timers are settling scores with a third one. With a bloody mug, the other manages to escape and vanishes in the thundering swell which moves and rumbles through the whole centre of the camp. There will be more settling of scores. Woe to (or good luck to, depending…) the kapo, the snitch listed-and-indexed, or the block chief who will fall into the hands of the freed. No one can dunk in the blood of others with impunity and hope to come out dry. “A time to love and a time to hate…”
But it appears that the war is going on, and the officers of the Red Army come to pick up their men and then leave. But an important detachment remains on the spot.
Come evening, nobody feels like plunking down.
I mill around with Simon who has come to join our clan. Some have found some alcohol out of nowhere and they are drinking. A Russian is guzzling straight from the bottle the content of a flask of eau de Cologne probably found among the parcels of the paketstelle. A soldier pours himself Benedictine into a water glass. Anything that has a taste of schnapps immediately finds a taker, but it does not go far. What dominates is a cold madness which cannot be described. The past, just yesterday, sticks to the skin. To go from the firing squad to freedom without transition, to live through a permanent death sentence and be amnestied without a learning period, is unsufferable to human sensitivity, and joy remains padlocked by an immediate future which no one can make out. On January 27th, 1945, those on death row have finally seen death die. Their wish has been granted.
Central camp. January 28th.
An enormous deflagration wakes up the men and throws everybody into the streets.
Some say that it’s a shell which has landed at the corner of the “21,” others that the Russians have just opened a breach in the wall of the Lager.
Auschwitz, besides its network of barbed-wire mounted on cement pylons, also has an outer-wall, made of concrete.
The Russians have knocked an enormous opening through the wall and military convoys are now crossing the camp. The troops-supply advances towards the front on these typical chariots of the European East, these old time carts with slatted sides made of ladders placed lengthwise, all pulled by small, white, ice-shoed horses (I was told they were Siberian). Wherever they are from, those beasts run at breakneck speed over the icy roads. No trucks. I would discover the GMC and the Jeeps, the products of American aid, a few days later on the road to my new exodus to Cracow, cars the motors of which were crushed by the cold. The animals seem to make fun of the cold. Great animation in the streets. Lags and grunts are still fraternizing.
Then from outside come the Polish looters. They turn up by the dozens, on sleds pulled by big horses, having crossed the iced-over Zola. I asked myself by what temperature we must have been liberated to allow for the passage, without risks, of such heavy loads.
For the Polacks it’s a feast day, a second Christmas at the end of January with piles of gifts close at hand. The sleds leave, packed with clothes, shoes, food. The Russians let them do and the noria keeps running relentlessly.
Simon chats with a Russian officer and plays at translating for me.
-Can the Germans come back?
I can still hear the huge burst of laughter of the officer.
-They’ll never come back as far as they have been but here, yes, they can come back here. They are three kilometres away, about…
Luck never serves the same dish twice. The more distance there will be between the Germans and me, the quieter I will feel. I decide to leave for the rear, to quit the camp and I tell that to Simon. He is won over by my arguments.
We ask my usual buddies to come with us, direction the Vistula, meaning, Cracow. They refuse. The euphoria of Henri is total. He is fraternizing with the soldiers and laughs at my fear. Armand follows suit.
Rapid adieu. Promises to find each other in Cracow whenever they decide to leave.
Simon, who has explored the whole camp, tells me that he has prepared a trunk loaded with saccharine which he has found God knows where.
-and what do you want to do with that?
For him, I am just an inexperienced kid, which by the way is perfectly true.
A get a lesson in economy on the street in Auschwitz. Simon explains to me.
-We have nothing, you and me, and we are going to find ourselves in a country ravaged by war where everything is lacking. Do you think they have a too much sugar, the Polacks? So that, by selling saccharine, we will be able to feed ourselves and find lodgings.
- Cracow is sixty kilometres away! The roads are icy. Do you imagine us walking cool lugging a suitcase, just behind the line of fire? Hey, Simon, you think it’s a worker’s vacation on the Eastern front?
He agrees with me, sighing.
-Too bad… You’ll see that I was right. But a suitcase… over sixty kilometres… On top of it, I’ve found cases full of Reichsmarks. But that money isn’t worth a penny anymore. I didn’t even take one.
One last glance at the crowd, at the agitation of the men drunk with their brand new freedom, and we get out through the breach. I entered Auschwitz through the door over which was written “Arbeit macht frei,” I might have left the camp through the chimney and I am going out through the torn down wall to trust myself with cautious paces on the ice of the river, which the sleds lacerate unremittingly with their skates.
Without another worry, the inhabitants of the area get about sacking the Lager. What a boon!
Any liberation is a tearing away, a death, a rebirth, even when you are getting out of Auschwitz.
The tearing away is the goodbye to my comrades who will not come back. I know that I too have lived through an earlier life which finished here, and that now I will have to start everything all over again. A rebirth? For sure, but there’s a need for an instructions sheet, if such exists.
I am leaving Auschwitz and I feel no euphoria, only an immense disgust tempered by a confused feeling of triumph. I have won the war. I am alive. That’s all. What can a man caught in a volcanic eruption feel when all of a sudden, without a warning, the volcano dies down?
Strangely, I have no remembrance of the city. Not an image, nothing. I must say that, as soon as we are out of the camp, Simon strikes up an acquaintance with a Pole who offers us hospitality. So that we slept and took our first meal as free men at his place. He told us that he had spent a long time in a German prison for having given some water to a deported.
I was born in Warsaw but I don’t speak Polish, a language which my haste of learning French very quickly erased from my memory. I only find isolated words in the style of: good morning, goodbye, thank you, which spares me from taking part in a conversation which does not interest me to begin with. I have nothing to say to the living.
To be freed doesn’t mean to be free. I didn’t well realize that my leg was held back by a threat, which was to get longer and longer as I walked towards normalcy. But it has remained there, invisible, intangible, ceaselessly pulling me back to uncontrollable flashes. Some smell? And I was off again to the rows of bedsteads and their unsufferable fragrances. Some mug? And right away would come back to me the face of a lad I came across at the Lager. A color? Auschwitz in my memory was grey, the color of anthracite, but the uniforms had a tint, the sky, the earth, the tools, the watchtowers, the weapons had their own hues which emerged from the greyness which had settled in my thoughts.
With all the years passed, this chain, I am still dragging it along with me. It follows me through Paris, in my trips, in my encounters. Nobody, except my wife, knows about it. She is the recipient of my screams when I happen, at night, to wake up screaming.
How often, in fall especially, when the sky becomes the color of lead again, when humidity weighs on the city and knocks down the stenches, does it happen to me to think: “It smells of Auschwitz!” How often the sight of a child, especially the tiny ones, brings me back, shattered at once, to Birkenau and to the destruction of those of the Lodz ghetto which I witnessed almost through its entire length: the last nine days of the month of August 44. For years, I was not able to eat potatoes in their jackets. Right away there rushed up the picture of Sunday meals and spuds. And so on… In my professional life, my emotional life, with my friends, my intimates, my women, the Lager has been, ceaselessly remains, present everywhere, but only to myself.
All the survivors of the camps are like this, despite some, not many of them, having literally erased from their conscious memories what they have lived through. I have had friends who remembered absolutely nothing, no event in which they had been implicated had left visible traces. I say “visible,” because the unconscious never erases anything. It buries it. But invisible cadavers still exist. And then, goodnight, nightmares… spectres rises from their tombs…
January 29th. We thanked our host and took the direction he pointed us to, towards Cracow.
And here, around Auschwitz, is the countryside covered in snow, the long road shining under its cover of ice: the dead beasts lie on the road, their legs stiff, their innards spilling from their open bellies forming pink snakes turned solid by the frost.
I love farm animals, especially horses. Memories of childhood… These gutted carcasses wake in me a feeling of pity of which I no longer knew myself capable of towards humans. A long desert journey with, here and there, traces of recent combats, demolished trucks in a ditch, a Russian tank cut in two as if it had been hacked open by a giant ax. We walk cautiously, slowly. The pavement is slippery. Strassenbau… A road-maintenance commando, hi! There is no Animal Tamer on the road to Cracow, there are no screams, no gummi (billy clubs), no punches, no spade sticks, only new pictures which hit us full in the face, flashes of shadows, of men coming towards us.
We cross Russian convoys moving towards the front. We are walking more and more slowly. There is no hurry. One must say also that we are not in the best of shapes. Every step brings us farther from the Germans and, for me, it’s the only thing that counts.
Our Pole from Auschwitz has told us that we must cross the Vistula.
A peasant informs us about the road and points out that we’ll find a bridge across the river at half-an-hour’s walk.
We are going through some undergrowth. Back to my memory come stories heard during my Polish childhood of the huge forests and their wolves. But, on that day, I am feeling invincible and wolves or not, nothing gets to me.
An encounter: a small detachment of the Red Army, led by an officer.
Simon waves to the officer and, after having explained where we are coming from, asks him: “Are there any Germans, over there?” The Russian smiles.
-Yes, but they’re all dead.
Only in Cracow did I realize the recklessness of our departure. Besides our shaven skulls and the tattoos on our lower arms, nothing indicated that we were deported. We didn’t, of course, have any identity papers. Well, for the length of a walk which lasted over five days, all through a war zone, in contact with Russian soldiers, among other things for sleeping, in the immediate hinterland of a gigantic war front, nobody asked us anything.
In order to reach the river, we walk over two hours before we can even see the Vistula, and instead of a bridge, we only find a ferry.
We are crossing among enormous icicles floating on the water. I manage to miss the bank and take a forced footbath. The ferryman points us to his house and it’s in front of a wood-fire that I am waiting for my socks and shoes to be dry again. As for the ferryman’s wife, she gives us a bowl of hot milk to drink. A taste so smooth one never forgets.
From: Joseph Bialot: C'est en Hiver que les Jours rallongent, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2002. Translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia (unauthorized).