Natalie J. Friedman is the Dean of Studies and Adviser to Seniors at Barnard College. She received her Ph.D. in literature from New York University in 2001, and has been a college instructor and administrator ever since. Her scholarly and literary nonfiction articles have appeared in various journals, such as Legacy, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States, The Connecticut Review, and The Equals Record. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Among the various “Frog and Toad” stories by Arnold Lobel that I like to read aloud to my two children, there is one called “Shivers,” in which Frog tells Toad a nightmarish tale about a giant frog that likes to eat children, because Frog likes to feel “the shivers”— a frisson of danger that comes from tiptoeing to the edge of an abyss and looking in.
Toad keeps asking Frog if the monstrous tale is a true one, and Frog’s refrain— “maybe yes, maybe no”— adds yet another frisson, drawing Toad, and the reader, ever closer to the darkness, tempting him with the possibility of truth while keeping him wrapped in the safe cloak of fiction. After feeling “the shivers,” one retreats back into the safety and security of the contemporary and the quotidian, back to the warm hearth, the good meal, the close embrace. And one can feel virtuous for having felt pity and sympathy for the sufferer in the story who has come through the fire and stands, whole and seemingly unblemished, before you.
For years, my mother told me a story that always gave me the shivers. It is a story about my grandfather, someone I never knew. He died when my mother was sixteen, so in a way, she barely knew him, either. But she had a small handful of memories, a little store of stories about him. One such story was about how he survived the Bor labor camp. Bor, which was in the former Yugoslavia, was a labor camp notorious for torturing its Jewish inmates. My grandfather had been tortured, in various ingenious ways, by the Nazi guards there. Luckily, he had somehow befriended an Austrian camp guard by the name of Johan Schlosser, who would rescue him from these various tortures. Once, my grandfather told my mother, someone had hung him up by the feet, a common punishment meted out for no apparent reason. The idea was that, with all the blood rushing to one’s head, one would pass out, and maybe, eventually, die. Johan Schlosser hurried to cut my grandfather down. That small act of kindness would have been enough to embalm him in the golden amber of memory, to warrant the amount of respect and awe in my mother’s voice as she recounted these facts. But then this brave Johan Schlosser later took ten men, including my grandfather, and smuggled them out of the labor camp under cover of night and led them into the frozen forests, where they were discovered by Serbian partisans: freedom fighters. My grandfather wore wooden shoes, regulation footwear for Bor labor camp Jews, and after walking in the forests for hours on end, his feet were bleeding, and a large Serbian carried him on his back to safety.
I loved this story. As a child, I would ask her to repeat it over and over again. I wanted to connect with the grandfather I had never known, a man who, in this story at least, seemed like a dashing character out of an espionage mystery. I loved that my grandfather had not one but two heroes to help him along his way, his very own “righteous Gentiles” who risked their own lives to save my grandfather’s. I loved that my grandfather had escaped from Bor, a camp that was “liquidated” – what a word for a child to know! — by the Nazis. I loved hearing the name “Johan Schlosser.” It had music in it, and it made my spine tingle.
I used this story to replace a real knowledge of my grandfather, who was no more than a ghost; stories like this one made him seem like flesh. The way that prayer has come to replace the need for animal sacrifice, stories about my grandfather – and this one in particular– replaced the bones-and-blood person he had been.
But as I grew older, and wise to the ways history is passed down, I started to ask myself whether the details of this story were, in fact, real. I didn’t doubt that my grandfather went through everything he described – I did not doubt that he had been an inmate at Bor, or that he had been tortured, or that a Serbian had carried him on his back – but I began to wonder whether there was a gap between what he had lived and what he had told my mother. Or maybe there was a gap between what my mother had heard and what she told me. I was especially curious about the mysterious Johan Schlosser, and what had become of him and the other men who had escaped, with my grandfather, from Bor.
My research did not turn up any Johan Schlosser who had been at the Bor labor camp. I discovered an Austrian composer named Johan Schlosser; there was an Austrian visual artist named Johan Schlosser; there were many, many men by that name living in Vienna today, eager to be found in the phone book or on the Internet. But none of them, as far as I could tell, was the one I was looking for, the character my mother had heard her father describe. Had Johan Schlosser served out his term as a Nazi and then re-entered civilian life, silently taking up the thread of his old prewar existence? Or was he building a new life in Vienna? Or Buenos Aires? Or had he been discovered as colluding with Serbian partisans, and had been shot or hung or electrocuted? I dug around; I looked at some books, some museums archives. I found nothing.
There is, by contrast, a lot of information to be found about the Bor labor camp. Bor was one of the infamous work camps that used up the energies of its prisoners, wasting them through work rather than gassing them upon arrival. In 1944, the Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported across the constellation of concentration camps, and Bor absorbed about three thousand Hungarian men, my grandfather among them. As the Russian troops began advancing across Europe, Nazis began to retreat, emptying labor and concentration camps as they went, marching Jews and other inmates across snowy landscapes, often shooting them along the way, if they weren’t already dying of typhus, dysentery, and the cold. The Bor Nazis split up the camp: half of the Jews embarked on a death march that ended with most of the inmates dying or being shot; the other half was marched into the frozen woods, where they ran into a band of Serbian partisans that captured them. The Serbian partisans quickly dispatched the Nazis, and they conscripted the Jews into partisan fighting units, eventually helping them make their way out of Yugoslavia.
I found no evidence that ten men had been smuggled out of Bor under cover of night to make their way into the Serbian forests. I read a lot about the “liquidation” of the camp, but nothing about daring escapes.
So I had some facts – a few. What did this give me? A new sense of truth? Of the way things “really” were? I had no grandfather to cross-examine, no one to ask about the relative “truth” of the story I’d been told, or how that story lined up with the facts. And even the facts, to me, became suspect, since perhaps the historians themselves were blinkered, their accounts partial, sullied by time and gaps in the archives.
Then I began to wonder about my mother. What was her role in this? She had listened to my grandfather tell his story at a very young age. Had her memory added some tints and shades, or perhaps erased some lines and figures, from the story as she had heard it? Had she been told a fable and believed it, or had her own mind supplied some of the fable-like qualities to this tale? If my grandfather had told her, for example, that he had marched into the forest with other Jewish men, and that Johan Schlosser was one of the guards accompanying them, and they had been set upon by Serbian freedom fighters, then perhaps her overactive imagination, fed, as it was, by the Red Fairy Tale Book and The Thousand and One Nights, gave Johan Schlosser a bigger role in the story than he actually had. And perhaps— if we might entertain this line of reasoning for a moment, as a thought experiment— Johan Schlosser was not even his real name. Perhaps his name was Heinrich, or Klaus, or Hans. Perhaps my mother had come up with the name Johan Schlosser, the name of a famous composer, readily available, something she read somewhere, a name with the romance of castles in it — schloss. The schloss in the forest. Was there really a Johan Schlosser who led ten men through the frozen forest under cover of night? Maybe yes, and maybe no.
I thought about talking with my mother about the paucity of facts regarding Johan Schlosser, about the Bor escape, confronting her and asking her outright if she had made some of this up. Or perhaps I would tell her that she and I both had been told a partial tale– that my grandfather had escaped into the forests of Serbia, but not with the help of an unidentifiable Nazi and not as part of some cloak-and-dagger plan. Then I thought better of it. If I myself had put so much value in believing in the existence of a kind Nazi officer, if I had put so much effort into believing the story of the ten men escaping into the forest, then imagine the emotional investment my mother had in this story, a story about the father who was stolen from her when she was still in her girlhood, a father who missed many of the significant passages of her life, from her migration to America to her wedding and the birth of her two daughters. She had only childhood memories of him, a few photos, and the stories he had told her – who was I to go and ruin it all?
I will never know how my grandfather really managed to get out of Bor. I will never know if there really was a Johan Schlosser. Nor will I ever know the name of the brave Serb who carried him on his back. These are things my grandfather has taken with him to the Other World, olam ha-bah in Hebrew or yenne velt in Yiddish, the place from where no one has yet returned to tell us what it’s like.
But it doesn’t matter; I have accepted the not-knowing.
This probably makes me a very bad Jew. Jews put a premium on knowing. It’s important to know things: how to pray, how to read the Torah, how to understand the ancient holy languages, how to remember the Ten Commandments and the six hundred and thirteen “good deeds,” and how to honor one’s family and ancestors. Not wanting to know is tantamount to sin – or, it can lead that way. One who willfully shuts her ears and eyes, like a child, is one who will surely wander off the path.
And wandered I have, because it is a betrayal to admit that the story I was told, the one that gave me pleasant shivers in a way no other Holocaust story in my family ever had – and trust me, there are hundreds, enough to fill the brain of an over-imaginative child until she suffers from constant nightmares – may have been transmitted to me as a partial truth. To do so is to invite the hateful invective of Holocaust deniers: if survivors’ stories can be so hard to trust, who is to say any of it really happened? My grasp on what really happened is slippery, and the only person who knows for sure has been buried for nearly fifty years in a crumbling cemetery in what is now the Ukraine. My grandfather is not able to counter the deniers; he is not here to tell them that he lived through it all, and therefore it must be real.
I have my handful of stories.
I might as well have a handful of ashes.
I think Holocaust stories give people the shivers, and although they can be hard to hear, people keep coming back for more, they keep coming back to the edge of darkness to peer in, but not enter. They know they are safe; they are hearing something, not experiencing it, and it all happened in the distant past, at a safe remove. But the teller of the tale— whether survivor or grandchild, telling a story that is wholly true or even partially unverifiable — is hardly unmarked. A reader of this essay, for example, can feel the shivers after reading the opening paragraphs, and then put the essay away and forget— I cannot. The reader might assume that I, as a grandchild of survivors, who has not lived through the atrocities, can do the same — but I cannot. Although I have been, thankfully, spared the first-hand knowledge of those horrific past events, I know what traces of the past are on me, in me, and because they are unseen, or I have become a terrific liar and good at hiding them, no one knows how deep they run. I am jealous of those who seek out the shivers and who can sink back into their blanket of ignorance, while I must return always to the things I cannot escape from: my family’s painful histories, the ruined lives, the ways that past tragedies can distort the present and warp its surface of safety. I never can or will ever feel completely protected or sheltered from what might emerge out of the dark abyss that I approach in retelling the Holocaust stories. But in order to advance the cause of “never forgetting,” of ensuring that these stories have a life, I need to compel listeners and take them with me to where the monster lies in wait, even if it means I will not sleep that night for having reawakened it in my imagination.
And so I write this essay that repeats the word “torture,” and I casually throw around the word “liquidate,” and I tempt my reader with the “maybe yes and maybe no” of truth and memory. Without the horror that I hope will linger in your mind, you might forget the crux of my argument. And even the argument ceases to matter, because, cravenly, all I want is for you to remember that the Holocaust happened, that people were tortured, maimed, burned, violated – all in the name of nothing. And I am not so noble as to think that upon hearing these dark tales you will be moved to get up and do something, find a charity to give to or sign a petition to stop genocide in Darfur or rape in Somalia or anything as big-hearted as that: I just want you to share some of my own pain. The bogeyman that lived under my bed when I was a child? He always had a Nazi uniform, and I want you to see him, too. Because if you and I look at him together, maybe he will become less scary, maybe the truth, however partial, will be less difficult to bear.