A Letter from Auschwitz to My Daughters

Article excerpt

TODAY, when you were at school, I drove across Silesia to a small town near Krakow. In Polish it is called Oswiecim. In all the other languages of the world it is called Auschwitz.

You will learn of the things that happened here. For the moment I do not want you to know. It is enough to say that about one and a half million people were murdered here. Most of them were Jews. I do not need to say much about what is here now. Auschwitz needs no adjectives, and even if it did need them it would not have them from me.

It is a place of lists. And so I need only mention a bolt of cloth woven from human hair; a mountain of shoes; ten thousand toothbrushes and mugs and saucepans; suitcases with names and addresses from all over Europe painted on them; a ramp by a railway line; some ruined ovens; a pond, black with ashes; a breezeblock wall between some huts with some candles burning at it; some showers in a concrete block which were never connected to the water.

There was a pile of children's clothes, and on it a dress which would have fitted Elizabeth well. There was a room full of women's hair, and amongst the hair was a single plait, like Sally has sometimes.

There were some people crying quietly at these things, and there were some people who were not. Snow fell on it all. The houses for miles around seemed guilty. The girl serving in the shop whistled along to pop music on the radio, and painted her nails. They say that the birds do not sing at Auschwitz, and they are right. But the poplars at nearby Birkenau grew strong and tall, and that seemed strange. A pall hung over it, and I did not want to breathe.

I do not know what all this means. I came here wise and I went away a fool. It is not that there are not lessons to be learned: it is that they seem too trite or too small, or simply that looking into the vast maw of Auschwitz freezes the capacity to draft nice propositions, or that the imperative of considering millions of individual sets of facts leaves no time or energy for generalities.

But I think, only because I am a father, that I ought to try to say something.

First the historical. I feel shabby about mentioning this, but after all Auschwitz was (sort of) historical, and so it must be all right. Auschwitz makes a Jewish state imperative. That has a number of consequences for the world in which you will grow up. …