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Sophie Unterman: Of Course, Survivors Are Free

A writer accompanies her grandmother on a journey through sites of Holocaust remembrance.
Image by Flickr user Global Panorama

By Sophie Unterman


Grandma takes out her hearing aids for the blues. For someone who has been through so much, she has an aversion to songs about struggle. When we visit her in Tulsa, we wake up to tinny Big Band swing over the smell of bacon-less eggs, strudel-sweet Sinatra, major-key Strauss. But the blues seemed natural here—Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, Lucinda Williams staining the gray Polish countryside a dreary Baltic navy.

Traffic slowed to a crawl as we drove through the ugly little town, and the clouds broke for the first time since Zakowice. Maybe the town was not ugly—the narrow streets and gray stone houses and little churches—but it seemed like it should have been. I pictured ashes from the crematoria settling on the hats of complicit townspeople, like in Schindler’s List. We followed the signs to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of them pointed to Auschwitz I, site of the museum and famous gate, but we veered off toward Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, where Grandma was interned.

“The museum is not worth visiting,” she said, with a shrug. “It’s no Yad Vashem. They won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.” She is a bit of a Holocaust museum snob. She’s earned the right.

What we approached was a scene I had had seared into my mind since I was far too young. Lying awake, images of the British liberation footage replaying in my head, a reel I couldn’t turn off. Schindler’s List, Survival in Auschwitz, library books with worn-out spines, grainy barracks in the snow, all of those empty eyes. The first time Grandma came to talk to my class, in fifth grade, I had just learned about the Holocaust. It was in the gymnasium of Highlands Elementary, where I had Enhanced Learning, a weekly “gifted” program. We had just finished up the Holocaust unit, and my teachers had invited Grandma to speak to our class. She was still talking about pre-war Zakowice, about walking through the forest with her grandmother, when I told my classmate I was slipping out for a drink of water. In the hall, far enough away from the microphone’s reach, I slumped against a handprint mural for just long enough not to have a teacher sent after me. I took deep breaths and clutched my stomach.

I knew Grandma’s story then—an abridged version of it, at least. We had been studying the Holocaust for weeks, reading Number the Stars and history books written for kids. But some of us had gone to the library and found the pictures. I found hundreds in the books on the top bookshelf in our den. The bodies packed into mass graves, fingers clutching at the air, empty eyes staring, the fifty-pound grown men gripping barbed wire fences, grayscale skin pulled tightly across skeleton faces. But Grandma’s story wasn’t like that. She and her parents survived. She wasn’t even in Auschwitz for that long—it was the camp where they spent the least amount of time. That part of the talk would be short, I repeated to myself. (I didn’t know much about the other camps yet, or the rest of her story—the atrocities at Stutthof, the Dresden bombing while she was working as a slave laborer in the city, the Death March to Theresienstadt.) I made it back to the gym feeling like I was going to throw up. I don’t remember much of that first talk; everything I remember is from when she spoke to my sister Phoebe’s class two years later.

Auschwitz is a symbol now, one I don’t know if I need to describe to get across the feeling. You can picture it—the gate, the ribbons of rusty railroad tracks converging at the entrance to Birkenau, an endless grid of dark, wooden barracks. But I do need to describe it, for myself. This is my Western Wall, my Masada. I am that woman in Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, the woman who plays the Hiding Game—the Holocaust is my link to Judaism, a replacement for a belief in God, a cop-out. This place will always hold significance for me, even if everyone else has already heard enough.

“I’m sick of it!” the German relatives exclaimed on our last leg of the trip, over coffee and even more chocolate cake. “Everything is Holocaust, every time you turn on the TV, every history special, everything our kids learned in school.”

“Good,” I wanted to shoot back. “That’s how it should be.”

At home, the word didn’t seem yet to be losing its power, those syllables whispered by friends’ parents, butchered by Southern accents of coworkers. “Yes, she was in Auschwitz. And Stutthof, Flossenberg, Theresienstadt.” But that first one is the one they wanted to hear.

The hundreds of times I had seen photographs and film footage, it had been in black and white. Here, the barbed wire pricked a blue sky.

“Oh, my God,” murmured Grandma as we approached the Birkenau gate. “My God, we are here.”

She had never been back to Auschwitz until she asked me, my junior year of college, to write her story, and I got the grant from Tulane to go on this trip. We spent months planning where we would stay and how we would get from place to place. I couldn’t wait for the trip but was a little nervous; it was going to be two weeks alone with her. Ever since I was little, I more than looked up to her—I wanted to be her. She was not like the other grandmothers I knew, smiley overweight women with flat Midwest accents, who seemed to be perpetually baking cookies and casseroles. She was glamorous, thin, dressed in crisp Brooks Brothers suits and good shoes. Everyone says I remind them of her—in looks (small with dark hair and eyes), in style (wearing lots of black, and messing up our feet with heels), in habit (compulsively clean perfectionists with the same scarily script-like handwriting).

She has an opinion on everything, a comment to make about every passerby, every provocative thing my sister says. She calls aside waiters and neighbors and strangers and asks them questions or tells them a story, a practice that I, an introvert, will never be able to warm to. I don’t talk about my feelings. I keep my thoughts to myself. So when Dad and Phoebe asked, a couple months before our departure date, if they could join, I was glad to have the extra support.

We entered the camp through the small museum shop. Tour group members overflowed the few benches outside, fanning themselves with brochures in a dozen languages. We passed them and followed the train tracks inside. Grandma wanted to enter the camp the way she did the only other time she’d been here, via the tracks.

“Here, Sophie, take my arm. This is how Europeans walk.”

A small crowd had gathered around her—people could tell she was a survivor.

I didn’t like walking joined together—she didn’t need help walking, and I wanted my arms free to take notes we made our way around the camp, but I didn’t argue. Elbows hooked together, we made our way down the tracks, the barbed wire fence disappearing in four directions over the dirt. The sun beat down on us, no shade in sight. Grandma stopped to tie a bright silk scarf over her hair, which made her look oddly religious. On the tracks, several hundred yards through the gate, sat an old cattle car like the ones used to bring Jews to the camp. Grandma had me stop and turn on the recorder. A small crowd had gathered around her—people could tell she was a survivor. She liked an audience, and she raised her voice a little to be sure everyone could hear.

“We didn’t know we were in Auschwitz then,” she repeated, “although the name would have meant nothing to us.”

She told about stumbling out of the dark cattle car into the light of the camp, the red sky, holding her mother’s hand, the separation from her father. The small crowd moved on, casting glances back at us. She paused, took a breath.

There is a story I heard from another survivor, Sophie, about the separation at Birkenau. When they threw the old ones and the babies to the left and the healthy ones to the right, one woman saw a baby lying by itself on the ground, crying. It had been abandoned there on the left side. Well, the woman who saw it was sent to the right, but when she saw this baby”—she paused, and her voice broke—“when she saw this baby, she picked it up and carried it into the gas chamber. She walked right into the gas holding that baby so it wouldn’t go alone.

Tangled threads of wire supports hung from wrought iron beams in the half-ruin of the Birkenau crematorium. Lush central European forest and sunless light poked through gouges in the brick walls. The crematorium was on the edge of the camp, against the woods. Phoebe’s feet crunched on the brick rubble, and Grandma didn’t try to stop her from sneaking in, although the sign proclaimed in three languages that trespassing was strictly forbidden. Auschwitz survivors and their documentarian grandchildren could break rules.

The crematorium was raised on a slight hill, and from this position, we looked down on all of Birkenau. Crumbling brick chimneys, the only remnants of burned-down barracks, sprouted from the ground like lifeless tree trunks, in neat rows. When they realized they weren’t going to rule for a thousand years and instead be defeated by the Allies within days, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. Camp prisoners tried to stop them—that’s why so much was in half-ruins. I imagined starved, near-dead skeletons in rags using their thin blankets to smother the flames, with those inhuman, bizarre bursts of adrenaline that occur only in times like that—the mother lifting a car off a trapped child. My great-grandparents had managed feats like that to save Grandma Eva, to get them through four camps, the Dresden bombing, and a Death March, to liberation, as a family.

As far as I could see, chimneys and, occasionally, undestroyed or rebuilt barracks dotted the landscape, surrounded by a silver staff of wires. None of us said anything. No murmurs of “my God” from Grandma, no just-remembered memories. Dad and I, for once, had nothing sarcastic to say, with a formulated sting to take the real sting out of what we were all feeling. Phoebe’s camera hung limply from her hand, her emotion hidden by her sunglasses.

It was a long time before we continued our self-guided tour through the rest of the camp, Grandma gasping in recognition at one of the public buildings or a stretch of dirt back near the tracks. We poked our heads inside a dark wooden barrack and then into one of the latrines, a long line of holes cut out of wooden benches.

“This is where we sat for hours as the women soldiers marched up and down, up and down, and watched us. This is where we were made to go to the bathroom, all together, I remember the smell. Sophie, I can’t stand in here without remembering that smell. And where they took us to wash us. We didn’t know that for so many, it wasn’t cold water that blasted from the showerheads. To be back here. My God.”

*                      *                     *


The tone shifted as we drove from Birkenau to Auschwitz I. Grandma was not in Auschwitz I; it was different. Instead of processing Birkenau, sitting silently next to one another and thinking about looking down at all those sun-bleached chimneys, we resorted back to Unterman Gallows Humor Mode. We were circling the clogged parking lot for the second time when Phoebe saw the spot. It was in the very front row, right up against the sidewalk.

“Dad!” she screamed. “Right there!”

He swerved into the spot, and I slammed against Phoebe in the back.

“Steve, careful!” said Grandma. “You’re going to kill us!”

“Good eye, Phoebe!” said Dad, throwing the car into park. “Goebbels couldn’t even get a spot this close. People would kill for this spot.”

We continued the thread—who could and couldn’t get the spot. Mengele? Nope. Eichmann? Perhaps. (Definitely Hitler, that went without saying.)

“Hey, we can joke about this,” Grandma said. “All of them are gone and look at me, I’m still here.”

This was not the first Holocaust joke of the trip. Phoebe started it all when she came up with the idea of the T-shirts. She sketched the design in her notebook: “Holocaust Reunion Tour, Summer 2011: Taking it Back to the Camps.” On the back was a list of tour dates and places—Lodz Ghetto, July 23rd; Auschwitz, July 24th; Stutthof, July 27th.

The shirts never got printed, but this attitude toward the trip remained. I realize it may be considered tasteless, this constant poking fun at the Holocaust. I was raised on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, read every Philip Roth novel I could get my hands on, grew up in a household steeped in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition where it was not only acceptable to make fun of everything, but encouraged, expected. When I met my college boyfriend, a wide-eyed Oklahoman raised Catholic, we ran into problems when he couldn’t grasp my sarcasm.

“Why are saying the opposite of what you mean?” he asked after one particularly flummoxing string of text messages.

Grandma herself was often the instigator of these jokes. In addition to finding Phoebe’s T-shirt idea hilarious, she refers to her Volkswagen Jetta as her “revenge against the Nazis.” She makes fun of her reparations money, paltry checks she receives from the German government.

“They decided to raise our checks twenty-three cents,” she told me one Thanksgiving. “We had to resubmit all the paperwork. How many hours we worked, the name of the factory, our exact ‘occupation.’ You think I can remember any of that? No one can. I told them all I remember is hiding from a bunch of people who wanted to kill me.”

I feel like I have to differentiate between our joking about the Holocaust and other kinds of Holocaust jokes. We make fun of what we know, our own story. These are not how-many-Jews-can-fit-in-an-oven jokes. When I went to visit the aforementioned college boyfriend one Christmas break in suburban Oklahoma City, I accompanied him to his friends’ New Year’s Eve party. He had warned me beforehand about one of them in particular.

“He’s kind of politically incorrect,” he said as we drove on the dark, treeless highway.

“Ha,” I laughed, “since when do I care about political correctness?”

My family uses our jokes as a way to talk about a serious subject. I attribute some of this sarcasm and joking, as I have already mentioned, to Jewish tradition. We are a dark people.

But “political incorrectness” was an understatement. The guy in question had a thick Oklahoma drawl, and a beer belly spilled out the bottom of his Sooners sweatshirt. He shook my hand and handed me a beer with a smile, but as soon as I wandered into the living room to shake off my coat, I could hear him regaling the rest of the party with a series of Jew jokes. When I returned to the kitchen, my boyfriend turned red and kind of nudged him, cutting him off.

“Your buddy’s a real charmer,” I told my boyfriend when we got into the car. He blushed, stammered something about how he didn’t mean any harm.

My family uses our jokes as a way to talk about a serious subject. I attribute some of this sarcasm and joking, as I have already mentioned, to Jewish tradition. We are a dark people. We have been through a lot. The Old Testament God is not a nice guy. Sunday School at the New Reform Temple was a blur of harmonic minor Hebrew hymns and rereading The Diary of Anne Frank. But my family took it a step further. We have a tradition of spending every Christmas at the movies. Our rule is that the movie should be a Holocaust one, if possible. If there is not one showing, we have resorted, a couple years, to watching one that has to do somehow with Jews—the new Coen Brothers or Woody Allen film will usually suffice.

We passed dozens of tour buses and squat European vans. Hordes of people milled around the museum entrance—Americans in matching T-shirts, Czech school groups, Asian hipsters in designer sunglasses. A sign for the famous gate pointed to the thick throng of people. For the first time on the trip, I felt like a tourist. I hoped people could tell why I was there. I’m legit, I wanted to say. Holocaust Grandma coming through, authentic Birkenau survivor! The crowd we were trying to push through didn’t look like the entrance to the world’s most infamous concentration camp, but the Saturday morning line to get into the Louvre. Dad took a shot of Grandma, Phoebe, and me under the gate, catching several tourists in the frame.

“Oh, yes,” he said, looking up from his screen. “Of course, survivors are free.”

Inside at the information desk, a guide informed us that the museum would close soon, but there was a documentary about to start. It was footage shot by the British liberators, and Grandma deemed it worth seeing. The guide pointed to a multilingual ticket price list above his head: adults, students, seniors.

“Excuse me, sir, I have a question,” said Grandma. She spoke slowly, as if she were addressing a child.

“Yes, miss?” The Polish lack of a smile.

“I am a survivor, and I am not buying a ticket.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, looking up from his screen. “Of course, survivors are free.”

*                      *                     *


Hebraic fonts adorned storefronts in the Krakow Jewish Quarter—all plaques and historical markers. This was a bakery that sold challah, “a braided egg bread made before sunset that Jews eat on Shabbat,” that was a kosher butcher. A yeshiva was housed here, a synagogue there. A post-apocalyptic Upper West Side.

Grandma had one specific synagogue in mind. There were several in the area, and we opened up the guidebook to try to find the right one. Dad asked her for a description.

“It is beautiful. Just beautiful, Steve,” she said. “You and the girls need to see it.”

“Do you know which street it’s on, or near?”

“Come on, Steve, how would I know that? Just look up the beautiful synagogue, the famous one. I think maybe I remember the name Itzak?”

According to the guidebook, all of the synagogues were beautiful, and we deliberated which one to try while Grandma stopped passersby and tried to describe this particular synagogue, in broken Polish, in order to find out where it was. No one seemed to know much about any synagogue, much less the one she had in mind. Unconvinced of which one to go to, we trekked several blocks and found a domed building with a Star of David carved above the door. Bingo. There was a man at the door, collecting fees.

“Can we just look in for a minute and see if this is the synagogue we are looking for?” asked Dad.

The man shook his head. “Three zloty.”

“I think this is the one, Steve,” said Grandma.

We paid and walked into a small, circular room filled with pews.

“This isn’t it,” said Grandma. “The one I want to see has great big chandeliers.”

“Why don’t we just look at this one instead?” suggested Dad, a bit irritated.

“Okay. We’ll go to the one I’m thinking of next. I’ll find it. I can even ask the man here.”

While Grandma read every plaque and marveled at each piece of art, Phoebe and I collapsed in chairs in the museum room. We started counting down how many days were left on the trip, how many more camps we had left to visit. But then, after these thoughts, I got that greasy, guilty feeling in the bottom of my stomach, like when I make a mean joke about someone for being fat or socially inept or something else they can’t really control. She survived Auschwitz, after all. I thought back to one day before, when we stood atop the crematoria, or when she grabbed my arm to walk with her along the railroad tracks. I was a jerk for wanting her to go to bed early so the three of us had time to decompress over beer. All three of us were jerks, and we knew it. It’s something we’d acknowledged, as if acknowledging it made us feel a little less worse about rolling our eyes when she stopped for the thousandth time at a plaque and wouldn’t budge until all three of us had pretended to scan it.

When she sidled up to one of us and wove her arms through ours, to walk with her, Phoebe and I shot glances at each other. I hated that I got embarrassed when Grandma grabbed my arm at a restaurant and told me how much she loved me, how much it meant to her that we were all four here together, retracing her steps. My impulse was to pull away and tell her not to say that, to make jokes instead, to speak in a code of sarcasm and avoid this earnestness she felt like she needed to impose on us. But of course, I didn’t. I blushed and told her I loved her, too, and was glad we all got to come on this trip together. And I really was, but why did I have so much trouble admitting this? I knew this was not a feeling unique to grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, but of grandchildren of anyone—or family members of anyone—but the Holocaust part amplified it.

I had no right to make fun of her or get so mad about the silly things she did that bothered me. But of course it doesn’t work like that; she’s family, and I had every right to want space from her, to slip away from the hundredth synagogue I wasn’t going to write about, and sit with Phoebe on the curb, making fun of how she managed to slip her entire life story into a “question” she posed to another poor synagogue tour guide.

Sophie Unterman is a New Orleans-based writer who also teaches at Phillis Wheatley Community School. Her work has appeared in The Forward, The Toast, and Deep South. She holds an MFA from Columbia University has and taught at Columbia and Lehman College.

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