Tuesday, October 25, 2011
When I was a kid in Paris, my parents often entertained—on a shoe string budget—a fascinating array of guests. Charles de Gaulle came for lunch one day, and one night Edith Piaf got very drunk during dinner. Francis Poulenc played piano in the living room of our apartment in the 17th arrondissement as a few minor movie stars vamped.
More often than not, I was sent to bed long before the guests arrived, but on a few occasions I was allowed to stay up and, as it were, mingle. There were many other guests whose names and faces I have forgotten, but the visitors who made the greatest impression were the ones with numbers tattooed on their forearms. These men and women had survived the German concentration and extermination camps—Dachau, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and others—and the blurred blue numbers inked on their skin were all you needed to know about their pasts. They were survivors of a hellish encounter with other men and women who were not quite human. They were Jews and Poles and Tzigans and homosexuals and they wore their numbers with pride, resignation, sadness.
I’m reminded of this today because I read in the paper the obituary of Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish Catholic who, with his Jewish girlfriend, managed to escape from Auschwitz in 1944 by disguising himself as a German SS. Mr. Bielecki and his girlfriend were separated shortly after their flight. Both married, raised families, and through sheer luck were re-united in the summer of 1983.
Jerzy Bielecki was 90 when he died on October 20. He was a member of a rapidly diminishing population of prisoners who endured imprisonment and worse at the hands of Germany’s National Socialists. There are probably fewer than 10,000 camp survivors left and they’re vanishing quickly.
In the US, a country that has never been subjected to the rule of invaders and whose people have, by and large, been free of the extreme politics that led to the creation of death camps, it is hard to even imagine the willful and planned annihilation of millions. But in France, Belgium, Italy, indeed in all of Europe, the death camp survivors have been a reminder for the past 70 years of man’s ability to propound hateful philosophies and actions in pursuit of an ideal, perverted though it might be.
It’s hard to conceive of anything like Dachau, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or Ravensbrück ever existing again but sadly genocide rarely rests.
I hope Mr. Bielecki and his estranged girlfriend had wonderful lives free from the nightmares of their pasts.