1. Auschwitz–Birkenau, January 1944
The Nazi officers are dressed in black. They look at death with the indifference of a gravedigger. In Auschwitz, human life has so little value that no one is shot anymore; a bullet is more valuable than a human being. In Auschwitz, there are communal chambers where they administer Zyklon gas. It’s cost-effective, killing hundreds of people with just one tank. Death has become an industry that is profitable only if it’s done wholesale.
The officers have no idea that in the family camp in Auschwitz, on top of the dark mud into which everything sinks, Alfred Hirsch has established a school. They don’t know it, and it’s essential that they should not know it. Some inmates didn’t believe it was possible. They thought Hirsch was crazy, or naïve: How could you teach children in this brutal extermination camp where everything is forbidden? But Hirsch would smile. He was always smiling enigmatically, as if he knew something that no one else did. It doesn’t matter how many schools the Nazis close, he would say to them. Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen, a school has been established.
In this life-destroying factory that is Auschwitz–Birkenau, where the ovens burn corpses day and night, Block 31 is atypical, an anomaly. It’s a triumph for Fredy Hirsch. He used to be a youth sports instructor, but is now an athlete himself, competing against the biggest steamroller of humans in history. He managed to convince the German camp authorities that keeping the children entertained in a hut would make it easier for their parents to do their work in camp BIIb, the one known as “the family camp.” The camp high command agreed, but on the condition that it would be for games and activities only: School was banned. And so Block 31 was formed.
Inside the wooden hut, the classrooms are nothing more than stools, tightly packed into groups. Walls are nonexistent; blackboards are invisible. The teachers trace isosceles triangles, letters of the alphabet, and even the routes of the rivers of Europe with their hands in the air. There are about twenty clusters of children, each with its own teacher. They are so close together that classes are whispered to prevent the story of the ten plagues of Egypt from getting mixed up with the rhythm of a times table.
The barrack door is flung open, and Jakoubek, the lookout, races toward the cubicle of Blockältester Hirsch, the head of Block 31. His clogs leave a trail of moist camp earth across the floor, and the bubble of calm serenity in Block 31 bursts. From her corner, Dita Adler stares, mesmerized by the tiny spots of mud, as Jakoubek calls out:
“Six! Six! Six!”
It’s code for the imminent arrival of SS guards at Block 31.
Hirsch pokes his head out of his door. He doesn’t need to say a word to his assistants or his teachers, whose eyes are locked on him. His nod is barely perceptible. His look is a command.
The lessons come to a halt and are replaced by silly little German songs and guessing games, to give the impression that all is in order. Normally, the two-soldier patrol barely enters the barrack, casting a routine glance over the children, occasionally clap- ping along with a song or stroking the head of one of the little ones before continuing their rounds. But Jakoubek adds another note to the customary alert:
Inspections are another matter altogether. Lines must be formed, and searches are carried out. Sometimes the youngest children are interrogated, the guards hoping to take advantage of their innocence to pry information out of them. They are unsuccessful. Even the youngest children understand more than their snot-covered little faces might suggest.
Someone whispers, “The Priest!” and a murmur of dismay breaks out. That’s their name for one of the SS noncommissioned officers, a sergeant who always walks with his hands tucked into the sleeves of his military greatcoat as if he were a priest, though the only religion he practices is cruelty.
“Come on, come on! Juda! Yes, you! Say ‘I spy . . .’ ”
“And what do I spy, Mr. Stein?”
“Anything! For heaven’s sake, child, anything!”
Two teachers look up in anguish. They are holding something that’s absolutely forbidden in Auschwitz. These items, so dangerous that their mere possession is a death sentence, cannot be fired, nor do they have a sharp point, a blade, or a heavy end. These items, which the relentless guards of the Reich fear so much, are nothing more than books: old, unbound, with missing pages, and in tatters. The Nazis ban them, hunt them down.
Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, African, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law—have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think.
The groups are in their places, singing softly as they wait for the guards to arrive, but one girl disrupts the harmony. She launches herself into a noisy run between the clusters of stools.
“What are you doing? Are you crazy?” teachers shout at her.
One of them tries to stop her by grabbing her arm, but she avoids him and continues with her dash. She climbs up onto the waist-high stove and chimney that splits the hut in two, and jumps down noisily on the other side. She knocks over a stool, and it rolls away with such a thunderous clatter that all activity stops for a moment.
“You wretched girl! You’re going to betray us all!” shrieks Mrs. Križková, purple with rage. Behind her back, the children call her Mrs. Nasty. She doesn’t know that this very girl invented the nickname. “Sit down at the back with the assistants, you stupid girl.”
But Dita doesn’t stop. She continues her frantic run, oblivious to all the disapproving looks. The children watch, fascinated, as she races around on her skinny legs with their woolen socks. She’s very thin but not sickly, with shoulder-length brown hair that swings from side to side as she rapidly zigzags her way between the groups. Dita Adler is moving among hundreds of people, but she’s running by herself. We always run on our own.
She snakes her way to the center of the hut and clears a path through one group. She brushes aside a stool or two, and a little girl falls over.
“Hey, who do you think you are!” she shouts at Dita from the floor.
The teacher from Brno is amazed to see the young girl come to a halt in front of her, gasping for air. Out of both breath and time, Dita grabs the book from her hands, and the teacher suddenly feels relieved. By the time she responds with her thanks, Dita is already several strides from her. The arrival of the Nazis is only seconds away.
Engineer Maródi, who has seen her maneuvers, is already waiting for her at the edge of his group. He hands her his book as she flies past, as if he were handing off the baton in a relay race. Dita runs desperately toward the back of the hut, where the assis-tants pretend to sweep the floor.
She’s only halfway there when she notices the voices of the groups have momentarily faltered, wavering like candlelight when a window is opened. Dita doesn’t need to turn around to confirm that the door of the hut has opened and the SS guards are com-ing in. She instantly drops to the ground, frightening a group of eleven-year-old girls. She puts the books under her smock and crosses her arms over her chest to prevent them from falling. The amused girls steal a glance at her out of the corners of their eyes while the very nervous teacher prompts them to keep on singing by lifting her chin.
After surveying the scene for a few seconds from the entrance to the hut, the SS guards shout one of their favorite words:
Silence falls. The little songs and the games of I Spy stop. Everyone freezes. And in the middle of the silence, you can hear someone crisply whistling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Priest is a sergeant to be feared, but even he seems somewhat nervous, because he’s accompanied by someone even more sinister.
“May God help us!” Dita hears the teacher nearby whisper.
Dita’s mother used to play the piano before the war, and that’s why Dita knows for sure that it’s Beethoven. She realizes this is not the first time she’s heard that particular way of whistling symphonies. It was after they’d been traveling from the Terezín ghetto for three days, crammed into a freight car without food or water. Night had fallen by the time they reached Auschwitz–Birkenau. It was impossible to forget the screeching sound of the metal door as it opened. Impossible to forget that first breath of icy air that smelled of burnt flesh. Impossible to forget the intense glare of the lights in the night: The platform was lit up like an operating room. Then came the orders, the thud of rifle butts against the side of the metal carriage, the shots, the whistles, the screams. And in the middle of all the confusion, that Beethoven symphony being flawlessly whistled by a captain at whom even the SS guards looked with terror.
That day at the station, the officer passed close to Dita, and she
saw his impeccable uniform, his spotless white gloves, and the Iron Cross on the front of his military jacket—the medal that can be won only on the battlefield. He stopped in front of a group of mothers and children and patted one of the children in a friendly manner with his gloved hand. He even smiled. He pointed to a pair of fourteen-year-old twins—Zdenek and Jirka—and a corporal hurried to remove them from the line. Their mother grabbed the guard by the bottom of his jacket and fell on her knees, beg- ging him not to take them away. The captain calmly intervened.
“No one will treat them like Uncle Josef.”
And in a sense, that was true. No one in Auschwitz touched a hair of the sets of twins that Dr. Josef Mengele collected for his experiments. No one would treat them as Uncle Josef did in his macabre genetic experiments to find out how to make German women give birth to twins and multiply the number of Aryan births. Dita recalls Mengele walking off holding the children by their hands, still calmly whistling.
That same symphony is now audible in Block 31.
Mengele . . .
Blockältester Hirsch emerges from his tiny cubicle, pretending to be pleasantly surprised by the visit of the SS guards. He clicks his heels together loudly to greet the officer: It’s a respectful way of recognizing the soldier’s rank, but it’s also a way of demonstrating a military attitude, neither submissive nor daunted. Mengele barely gives him a glance; he’s still whistling, with his hands behind his back as if none of this had anything to do with him. The sergeant—the one everyone calls the Priest—scrutinizes the hut with his almost transparent eyes, his hands still tucked inside the sleeves of his greatcoat and hovering over his middle, never far from the holster of his gun.
Jakoubek wasn’t wrong.
“Inspection,” whispers the Priest.
The SS guards repeat his order, amplifying it until it becomes a shout in the prisoners’ ears. Dita, sitting in the midst of a ring of girls, shivers and squeezes her arms against her body. She hears the rustle of the books against her ribs. If they find the books on her, it’s all over.
“That wouldn’t be fair . . .” she murmurs.
She’s fourteen years old. Her life is just beginning; everything is ahead of her. She recalls the words her mother has been repeating insistently over the years whenever Dita grumbles about her fate: “It’s the war, Edita . . . it’s the war.”
She is so young that she barely remembers anymore what the world was like when there was no war. In the same way that she hides the books from the Nazis, she keeps secret the memories in her head. She closes her eyes and tries to recall what the world was like when there was no fear.
She pictures herself in early 1939, aged nine, standing in front of the astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Hall square. She’s sneaking a peek at the old skeleton. It keeps watch over the rooftops of the city with huge empty eye sockets.
They’d told them at school that the clock was a piece of mechanical ingenuity, invented by Maestro Hanuš more than five hundred years ago. But Dita’s grandmothers told her a darker story. The king ordered Hanuš to construct a clock with figures, automatons that paraded on the stroke of every hour. When it was completed, the king ordered his bailiffs to blind the clockmaker so that he could never make another wonder like it. But the clockmaker took revenge, putting his hand into the mechanism to disable it. The cogs shredded his hand, the mechanism jammed, and the clock was broken, unfixable for years. Sometimes Dita had nightmares about that amputated hand snaking its way around the serrated wheels of the mechanism.
Dita, hanging on to the books that may take her to the gas chamber, looks back with nostalgia at the happy child she used to be. Whenever she accompanied her mother downtown on shopping expeditions, she loved to stop in front of the astronomical clock, not to watch the mechanical show—the skeleton in fact disturbed her more than she was prepared to admit—but to watch the passersby, many of them foreigners visiting the capital. She had difficulty concealing her laughter at the astonished faces and silly giggles of those watching. She made up names for them. One of her favorite pastimes was giving everyone nicknames, especially her neighbors and her parents’ friends. She called snooty Mrs. Gottlieb “Mrs. Giraffe” because she used to stretch her neck to give herself airs. And she named the Christian upholsterer in the shop downstairs “Mr. Bowling-Pin-Head” because he was skinny and completely bald. She remembers chasing the tram as, its little bell ringing, it turned the corner at the Old Town Square and snaked its way into the distance through the Josefov neighborhood. Then she would run in the direction of the store, where she knew her mother would be, buying material to make Dita’s winter coats and skirts. She hasn’t forgotten how much she liked that store, with its neon sign in the door, colored spools of thread lighting up one by one from the bottom to the top and then back down again.
If she hadn’t been one of those girls insulated by that happiness typical of children, then perhaps as she passed by the news- paper kiosk she would have noticed that there was a long queue of people waiting to buy the paper. The stack of copies of Lidové Noviny that day carried a headline on the front page four columns wide and in an unusually large type. It screamed rather than stated
GOVERNMENT AGREES TO GERMAN ARMY’S ENTRY INTO PRAGUE.
Dita briefly opens her eyes and sees the SS guards sniffing around the back of the hut. They leave no stone unturned, even checking behind the drawings that hang on the wall from makeshift barbed wire nails. No one says a word; there is only the sound of the guards rummaging around in the hut. It smells of dampness and mildew. Of fear, too. It’s the smell of war.
From the little she remembers of her childhood, Dita recalls that peace smelled of chicken soup left cooking on the stove all night every Friday. It tasted of well-roasted lamb, and pastry made with nuts and eggs. It was long school days, and afternoons spent playing hopscotch and hide-and-seek with Margit and other classmates, now fading in her memory . . .
The changes were gradual, but Dita remembers the day her childhood ended forever. She doesn’t recall the date, but it was March 15, 1939. Prague awoke shaking.
The crystal chandelier in the living room was vibrating, but she knew it wasn’t an earthquake, because nobody was running around or worried. Her father was drinking his breakfast cup of coffee and reading the paper as if nothing were happening.
When Dita and her mother went out, the city was shuddering. She began to hear the noise as they headed toward Wenceslas Square. The ground was vibrating so strongly that it tickled the soles of her feet. The muffled sounds grew more noticeable as they got closer to the square, and Dita was intrigued. When they reached the square, they couldn’t cross the street, which was blocked off by people, or see anything other than a wall of shoulders, coats, necks, and hats.
Her mother came to a dead stop. Her face was strained and suddenly aged. She grabbed her daughter’s hand to turn back, but Dita’s curiosity was strong. She yanked herself free of the hand that was holding on to her. Because she was small and skinny, she had no trouble wiggling her way through the crowd of people on the sidewalk to the front where the city police were lined up, their arms linked.
The noise was deafening: Gray motorcycles with sidecars led the way one after another. Each carried soldiers in gleaming leather jackets and shining helmets, with goggles dangling from their necks. They were followed by combat trucks, bristling with enormous machine guns, and then tanks thundering slowly down the avenue like a herd of menacing elephants.
She remembers thinking that the people filing past looked like the mechanical figures from the astronomical clock, that after a few seconds, a door would close behind them, and they would disappear, and the trembling would stop. But they weren’t automatons; they were men. She would learn that the difference between the two is not always significant.
She was only nine years old, but she felt fear. There were no bands playing, no loud laughter or commotion The procession was being watched in total silence. Why were those uniformed men here? Why was nobody laughing? Suddenly, it reminded her of a funeral.
With an iron grip, her mother caught her again and dragged her out from the crowd. They headed off in the opposite direction, and Prague became itself again. It was like waking up from a bad dream and discovering that everything was back to normal.
But the ground was still shaking under her feet. The city was still trembling. Her mother was trembling, too. She was desperately pulling Dita along, trying to leave the procession behind, taking hurried little steps in her smart patent-leather shoes.
Dita sighs as she clutches the books. She realizes with sadness that it was on that day, not the day of her first period, that she left her childhood behind. That was the day she stopped being afraid of skeletons and old stories about phantom hands, and started being afraid of men.