Acclaimed Swedish journalist Gören Rosenberg is preoccupied with roads. The roads that interest him are those that led from what he calls the ‘archipelago’ of Nazi concentration and slave labour camps at the end of the Second World War, and from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, in particular. The direction is important. While much has been written about the experiences of the millions of Jews transported to the camps, considerably less attention has been paid to the post-war experiences of those lucky few who survived long enough to be emancipated—those, in order words, who found themselves embarking on the road from Auschwitz.
“I seize every opportunity to ask about the road from Auschwitz,” Rosenberg admits, “since every road from Auschwitz is an individual miracle. The road from Auschwitz follows the most shifting routes, veers off to unpredictable destinations, and comes through the most unexpected places. Those who are on the road from Auschwitz are all exceptions, just as every road from Auschwitz is an exception.”
Rosenberg’s parents, David and Halinka, were two of these rare, miraculous exceptions. The pair were neighbours in the infamous Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Łódź, where they spent their formative teenage years. When the ghetto was ‘liquidated’ in August 1944, both were crammed into the same cattle car and transported by rail to Auschwitz. Both survived the selection process on the camp’s infamous arrival ramp. Both witnessed most of their respective families, those who failed the same selection process, disappear into the ‘showers’, never to be seen again. Not long after their arrival in Auschwitz, both were deemed fit enough to be transferred to different slave labour camps, which were set up to feed Nazi Germany’s voracious war machine. Given that the average life expectancy in Auschwitz was less than three months, both were, rather ironically, saved by this slave labour. Rare, miraculous exceptions.
At the end of the war, and following a necessary period of recuperation (he weighed 40 pounds when he was liberated), David Rozenberg’s road from Auschwitz took him to Sweden. Travelling along the railway line carrying nothing more than a small suitcase, he made frequent brief stops at various stations along the way, looking for a place he might call home—looking, in short, for somewhere that would be his final stop on the road from Auschwitz.
He finally settled on Södertälje, a small town close to Sweden’s east coast, which is referred to throughout the book as the Place. Situated on the banks of Lake Mälaren, in close proximity to dense pine forests, and boasting ample employment opportunities, the Place seemed like paradise, as good a ‘Place’ as any to start rebuilding a shattered life.
Or, as it turned out, two shattered lives. Having last seen each other on the ramp at Auschwitz in 1944, David Rozenberg and Halinka Staw had sought on another after the war. When Halinka joined David in Sweden in 1946, the pair embarked on The Project. The Project was, in essence, their attempt to put their horrific past behind them and re-assimilate into society. This involved marriage, settling into the Place, and the arrival of the ‘Child’, who, the author notes, “quickly binds them to the Place [and] who happens to be me.” Names were a big part of the Project: wishing to avoid being marked as Jews, the z in the family’s surname was renounced in favour of an s, while he Child was given a Swedish name as opposed to a traditional Jewish one. Fitting in, they believed, would be key to the success of the Project.
The signs were promising at first. The Place was welcoming, the Child was happy and settled, the future of the Project seemed bright. But as months and then years passed, David began to have doubts about his choice of Place, where horizons were limited and steadfastly refused to ‘open up’ for him. The Place was, as it turned out, too small to accommodate his hopes and ambitions. Perhaps most crucially, it offered little in the way of protection against the shadows that had doggedly followed him since he first embarked on his chosen road from Auschwitz. And when those shadows finally caught up with their prey, the Place that had once seemed like paradise became a certain kind of hell—a much different hell than the hell of Auschwitz, but a hell all the same.
In this book, which is translated from the original Swedish, Gören Rosenberg embarks, both literally and figuratively, on a pilgrimage to the past. As he attempts to re-trace his father’s journey on the road from Auschwitz, he finds he must also return to his own childhood years and submit his early life to a reappraisal. A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz is also, one senses, an exercise in confronting his own role in the Project and his lack of awareness of its impending demise. Addressing his father directly, something he does frequently in the book, Rosenberg asks plaintively, “Doesn’t anyone notice how ill you are?” before adding, quite simply, “I don’t.”
Quiet rage is everywhere in this book; Rosenberg’s writing is infused with it. On almost every page, simmering just below the surface, there is a barely-contained fury directed, not only at the murderous Nazi regime, but also at the post-Nazi German bureaucrats who deemed David Rosenberg insufficiently damaged by his experiences to warrant payment of reparations (“Perhaps,” he confides to his father, “you thought Auschwitz, Wöbbelin and the liquidation of your world would be enough?”). There is anger also at those who blithely carried on with their lives as atrocities were committed in their very midst—those people, in other words, who turned a convenient blind eye. There is anger directed at Rosenberg’s native Sweden, and in particular at the Place that, for all its promises of a bright new tomorrow, ultimately failed to deliver it. There is another kind of anger in evidence as well: a reproachful, inner anger, focused on Rosenberg’s younger self, for his failure to notice, his failure to understand. And then, finally, there is a resentment of the world at large, for its inability to bridge the unbridgeable gap of understanding between “those who know and those who don’t,” for failing to decipher the “confusion of language [that] doesn’t reside in language.”
Moving in tandem with his smouldering rage is a Herculean struggle to conquer the inadequacies of memory, both individual and collective. Being nothing more than a collection of impressions, glimpses, evocations and perceptions, remembrance is a wholly fallible and faithless thing. None of us can truly trust our recollections: the further we move away in time and space from a specific event, the greater the chance that the details of the event will disappear through the cracks of memory’s weakening structure, or become confused with other, unrelated events. Rosenberg is painfully reminded of this every time he has to consult contemporary newspaper reports, or the testimony of others, to fill in the gaps in his own memory.
This book can be seen as many things: a love letter to a lost father, an apology, a plea for forgiveness, an attempt to rehabilitate a tainted reputation. But most of all, it’s an ode to remembrance, a written record of the experience of one man’s exceptional journey on the road from Auschwitz. There will come a time, very soon, when written records will be all we have left to remind us of humankind’s ability to commit acts of such unqualified evil as the Holocaust. For this very reason, books like A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz are vital if we are to prevent a collective slide towards oblivion. Lest we forget, lest we forget.
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz by Gören Rosenberg is published by Granta, 2014.
Göran Rosenberg will speak at Jewish Book Week 2015 on 1 March. More information here.
Sinéad Fitzgibbon is an author and critic. Several of her titles have been published by HarperPress as part of their bestselling History In An Hour series.