An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust

An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust

by Bernat Rosner

ISBN: 9780520236899

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Family & Childhood, Religion & Spirituality/Judaism, History/World

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Return of the Past

"We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human." -Hannah Arendt

The end of the journey came five days after the train left Kaposvar. People spilled out of crammed cattle cars onto the platform of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on a foggy morning in July 1944. The bodies of those who had died were left behind in cars whose heavy sliding doors had been barred shut the entire trip with iron and barbed wire. The only light had filtered through narrow ventilation slats, and the terrified victims now blinked in the daylight, looking for friends and family members on the platform. They shouted out names in Hungarian-Pista, Jozsi, Sanyi, Kato. But SS guards ordered silence, striking with rifle butts anyone who was too slow to stop searching for a familiar face or calling out names.

Twelve-year-old Bernat Rosner was unloaded from a cattle car together with his father, mother, and younger brother. Bernat tried to hold onto the family's small pile of possessions and to keep it separate from the others. He caught a brief glimpse of his Uncle Willy and of Jenv, one of his older cousins and playmates back home. But then he lost sight of them in the crowd.

All of those who had been designated car "leaders" before their departure by the SS crew in charge of the deportation were ordered to report to the camp authorities. As the leader of their freight car, Bernat's father did so, and disappeared-forever. Bernat and his ten-year-old brother, Alexander, soon joined the men and boys, but not before their mother admonished them to stick together. Then she too vanished forever, like their father had just a short while earlier. Now the two brothers stood in a group of males on the platform in the camp-a desolate, flat place surrounded by a heavy chain-link fence, topped with coils of barbed wire.

* * *

In summer 1983 I was invited to dinner at the home of Bernat Rosner, Auschwitz survivor and husband of my wife's high school friend. Sally had run into her friend again by chance after twenty years. When Susan Rosner asked us for dinner at their house, I reflected on the fact that most Germans of my generation and younger had not known any Jews personally-or, if so, only fleetingly-because when we were young in Germany, the Jews among us were removed from our midst and exterminated. As a German American, I returned to the United States, studied and worked at the University of California, and lived among Americans, some of whom were Jewish.

During my years in Berkeley, I met only a few concentration camp survivors. One such encounter took place in the staging area of an academic procession near the campanile on campus. I paired up with a Czech lecturer waiting in a crowd of professors for a march to the Greek Theater, where a graduation or a visiting dignitary was to be celebrated. The woman, in her late thirties and with chestnut hair, was a friendly colleague on the fifth floor of Dwinelle Hall. My office was in the German Department, and hers was around the corner in the Slavic Department, which we both referred to jokingly as "the Polish corridor." There, at the base of the campanile, we were all wearing our academic robes and mortarboards, and the atmosphere was festive. I was shocked when the San Francisco Bay breeze suddenly raised the sleeve of her gown to reveal a concentration camp number on her arm. It contained, among other digits, a seven, with the characteristic German side cross over the down stroke. Looking back, I have sometimes wondered whether I offended her by asking where and when she was so marked. Her answer was simple: "Auschwitz." Then she continued to talk about other things in a casual manner. She also bore a deep half-moon scar on her chin that might well have been inflicted on her by a jackbooted guard; but at the time I couldn't bear to put the two things together in my mind.

I felt apprehensive about the upcoming evening with my wife's old schoolmate and her husband. It would have been easier to watch a documentary film or to participate in an academic discussion on the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. This dinner for four could be attended by uninvited guests-any of the dead members of his family or of mine. Perhaps my distant uncle, who had been an SS officer in charge of a refugee camp near W|rzburg and hanged by the surviving inmates at the end of the war, might appear. Or perhaps my own father in his Nazi Party uniform would join us for dinner, or my host's father and mother as they emerged from the ashes of the crematorium.

When I was introduced to Bernie, as he now called himself, I was convinced that he was older than I. He looked worn out from his job as general counsel of the Safeway grocery chain headquartered in Oakland. His days at the corporate head offices were obviously more hectic than mine as a professor at the university in nearby Berkeley. No wonder. The revolutionary days of the 1960s and 1970s had passed. The campus atmosphere was more "academic," though Berkeley never became a tranquil place for quiet contemplation. But Bernie was the lead attorney in a field where the financial stakes were high. We had our battles at the university, too, but as Henry Kissinger once described the paradox at Harvard, university turf wars were fierce because the stakes were low.

Although the subject of concentration camps didn't come up over dinner, I couldn't help thinking about it. I noticed that Bernie had light blue eyes. Words from the "Todesfuge" (Death Fugue) of the Jewish poet Paul Celan, an Auschwitz survivor who later committed suicide in Paris, crowded in on me: "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau" (Death is a master from Germany his eye is blue). I repeated them several times to myself, re-creating in my mind the ritual intensity with which they are repeated in the poem. As a child I was told that I had inherited the blue eyes of my mother, who died before the war, when I was three years old.

From these self-absorbed reveries, I looked again at our dinner host and decided that perceptions were a result of the moment. Now it seemed to me that he had the upturned mouth of Frank Sinatra and could easily pass for his first cousin, if not his brother. No hint of Auschwitz there. I noted that he and I, both on the short side, were just about the same height. He was slight and wiry, while I had to watch my weight. What little hair he had left was sandy brown, while I had all my dark but graying hair. I probably looked more "Jewish" than he did to those who saw people as stereotypes. My mind drifted to my father, who told me once of being terribly afraid of a barber in Germany who had asked if he was Jewish. My father denied it, insisting that appearances can be deceptive, but he had the feeling the barber didn't believe him and would have liked to have cut his throat with the straight-edged razor he used to shave him. The dinner conversation with the Rosners escaped me for a short time, but no one seemed to notice my silence. And my free associations about blue eyes, appearances, and barbers faded away. In reality, Bernie is a year younger than I am.

As it turned out, the hours passed quickly during that mild summer evening in northern California, when the setting sun suffuses the air with a pale yellow tinge. World War II was two generations behind us. The past seemed far away. We stayed late to sip cognac and watch a sampling of Bernie's video collection of grand opera. The Rosners had a large-screen television, and with several remote controls Bernie could tune in the finest arias of Mozart or Verdi. Classical music enveloped the living room as we listened to excerpts from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Who, at our age, would not be touched by the Marschallin's musings on time as a wondrous thing-"Die Zeit ist ein sonderbar' Ding." Wouldn't it be best for both of us to just surround our pasts with the detached glow of great music?

* * *

After this first dinner, I didn't know whether we would see the Rosners again. But when we reciprocated the invitation and they accepted, we began to develop a pleasant, if superficial, suburban friendship. At first our wives encouraged and held it together. They had shared an upper-middle-class background in southern California and had some common friends from the high school they attended in Pacific Palisades in the early 1960s. As couples we had similar interests-in good food and wine, tennis, travel, culture, and contemporary affairs. When it came to our pasts, Bernie and I could easily talk about our early childhoods. It turned out that we both grew up in European villages. Bernie was born and raised in the Hungarian village of Tab, located southwest of Budapest, where his parents cultivated and sold fruit and walnuts. And although I had been born in San Francisco, I also grew up from the age of three in a village-Kleinheubach, on the Main River, about 75 kilometers southeast of Frankfurt. We both knew the lazy days of summer when nothing moved during the midday heat aside from the swallows that swarmed with high-pitched screeches over red-tiled roofs or flew low over the cobblestones to signal the arrival of a late afternoon thunderstorm. Growing up in a village gives you a special sense of place and the physical appearance of things: the polish of smooth-worn stone steps; the penetrating smell of wax and Lysol in the school buildings; the fierce look of the scarecrows that were supposed to protect the cherries on the neighbor's trees but instead frightened small children far more than the pesky, ever-present sparrows.

Though small, the villages of our youth were connected to the outside world by trains that stopped several times a day. This limited traffic didn't prevent weeds from growing up between some of the tracks. Because we knew the train schedule, we could use the tracks as a shortcut to the nearest fishing pond, thereby avoiding the dusty roads. Our villages had few lights, so that day and night were sharply demarcated, as were the seasons. A quiet life characterized our early childhoods.

But the parallels in our lives ended abruptly one day in spring 1944 when the SS and their Hungarian Nazi henchmen arrived in Tab and deported the twelve-year-old Bernie, his family, and the other Jewish inhabitants to Auschwitz. In the summer of that same year in Kleinheubach, when I was thirteen, I was a member of the Jungvolk and slated to become a Hitler Youth. My father, a full-time employee of the Nazi Party, became a lieutenant in the German army. Most of my family, including my father, survived the war. Bernie's family perished. He is its only survivor.

* * *

When you emigrate to America, you turn the pages of your life quickly. If you don't do it yourself, the country will do it for you, or you'll be "history," as they say. This is America. In contrast, a contemporary German writer recently stated that not a day had passed since Auschwitz. That is Germany. As our acquaintance deepened into a friendship, Bernie and I were caught for more than a decade between our European pasts and our American present, and neither early childhood memories nor the many things we now had in common were enough to bridge the divide that had existed between us during the years when Hitler was in power.

* * *

Bernie's experience of Auschwitz and the disappearance of his family and my German upbringing and Nazi father couldn't be discussed over dinner. I couldn't just say, "How was it?" or "Tell me about it, Bernie." There was no adequate way to broach the subject. But neither could we ignore these facts; they were close by, somehow, whenever we met. The Holocaust had become an important topic of academic research, but in spite of all the insights that have been gained, the distance between the trauma itself and present reflections on it has inevitably become greater. Once, during a cocktail party at our home, I happened to hear a well-known Berkeley professor mention to Bernie that he had just returned from a conference on Auschwitz in Hamburg. Bernie replied, "I was there-at Auschwitz, I mean." For a moment silence ensued, and then my learned colleague changed the subject. The gulf between the Auschwitz victim-an uncommonly articulate man-and the normally communicative scholar, well versed in the current academic discourses about the Holocaust, was striking. These two party guests had little to say to each other.

After I had known Bernie for a year or so, Auschwitz drifted into our conversation inadvertently. But Bernie was reluctant to dwell on it. He told us, as he has told many people in America over the years, that he had lived two different lives-a childhood in Europe and an adulthood in America-and that the first life had nothing to do with the second. He obviously wanted to leave it at that.

* * *

At the end of one of our dinners-in fall 1989-the Rosners mentioned that they were planning to visit Hungary and Bernie's village, Tab, the following summer. They suggested that we join them, and we agreed. I was going to be on sabbatical in Europe, and we already had plans to see Hungarian friends in Budapest, so the timing was right. We decided to meet in Budapest and drive to Tab.

When Sally and I reached Budapest in the late afternoon on the appointed day, we were delighted to find that our friends had arrived safely and were already in their room at the Hotel Buda. The next morning we spread a road map on the hood of our rented car and plotted the route from Budapest southwest to Tab. Sally, our designated driver, negotiated the Hungarian traffic while Bernie navigated us toward his native countryside. On the way we caught up on each other's lives. Bernie must have thought about it, but until we arrived at Tab, it seemed as if the rest of us had given little thought to the fact that we would be visiting not just the village of his childhood but also the village from which he and his family had been forcibly torn by Nazis. Much later I realized that in proposing this trip, Bernie had emphasized the tourist aspects, since at that time he kept his life as Nazi victim far away, if not entirely from himself, certainly from the persona he presented to the outside world, including his friends and family. For Bernie and me, however, it turned out to be the beginning of a journey that took us far beyond the one-day trip to his native village.

About an hour and a half out of Budapest, we approached Tab. Small side roads to orchards, plowed fields, and groves of trees, marked the rolling landscape. Once in Tab, we parked the car near the railroad station, and Bernie became our guide. Our vacation mood changed, and our animated conversation faded as the reality of Bernie's past came into focus. We walked slowly down the main street as if picking our way through a minefield laid down by history. Bernie oriented himself by identifying places where particular houses had stood many years ago.


Excerpted from "An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust" by Bernat Rosner. Copyright © 2002 by Bernat Rosner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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