On the way to Sweden - June 1945
We're on the ship -down on the third deck. It's a big room with bunk beds in three tiers along the walls.
In every bed there's a sick woman, or a weakly woman. It sounds as though everyone is talking at the same time but most of them are crying: worries, pain, or the loss of those near and dear. The air down here is very heavy. It's difficult to breathe. It smells of sweat, dirt, food leftovers and urine.
There's a single weak bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Everybody looks sickly, wretched, emaciated eyes swollen with tears, pained eyes. The distinct bitterness in the line of mouth bears eloquent testimony to their sufferings.
The hair is beginning to grow, in tufts, standing straight on end or forming curls. The nationalities are mixed: Hungarian, Dutch, Romanian, Polish, Czech, French. During quieter moments the noise from the upper decks drifts down to our quarters. A shipload of refugees - on the way to Sweden. It's one of the "Bernadotte transports" and the date is June 1945. There are Swedish nurses taking care of all the refugees. Their faces reveal deep compassion, but there's not much they can do. Nothing apart from keeping them quiet, and that proves difficult.
The refugees are distrustful. They don't believe in anybody. How could they? They were promised so much in Germany, and what happened?
They believe only in death.
They all had to spend the whole day and the whole night in bed, because they were so enfeebled. And one couldn't have them running to and fro on the ship, with so many refugees on board.
Meals were served at the bedside: on a plate, with knife and fork. Their reaction was dumbfounded amazement; it was so long since they had had food served like that. Some of them turned the plate upside down, to see if there was any inscription on the back. All the food dropped on to the rug, but that made no difference. It was licked off that rug, and it tasted just as good.
During the meal they all forgot about their sorrows, the pain and the worry. An atmosphere of happiness was created, developing into a state of near ecstasy.
They began to rattle the knives and forks together. Slowly at first - then faster and faster. Everybody joined in. The rattling was replaced by a scream. They lay there, twisting and turning. It looked as though they wanted to crawl out of their skins -and maybe that is precisely what they wanted to do. The first signs of freedom reached their brains: no roll call, no cold, no punishment -none of those. Instead, decent food served in bed.
It took the Swedish nurses a long time to calm them down. First they tried whistling, but the women couldn't hear it. Then they began to yell at them, but the women just thought that they were sharing their newfound joy and continued to shout. The tears rolled from the women's eyes, sweat formed in pearls on their faces. Their clothes were soon soaked - they were sweating, and there were many who simply couldn't contain themselves.
Then a nurse pressed the emergency button. Ten or fifteen more nurses came running down the stairs. There was only one thing they could do: be strict with the refugees. They had to put an end to this sort of behaviour. The Swedish nurses tried to take away the knives and forks, and a real fight was about to develop. When the nurses finally succeeded, all was far from quiet. The women didn't want the din to stop. The nurses had to use force to press them down into the beds. Many were given sedatives.
Finally they all lay still. Every woman absorbed in her own thoughts, just staring into a vast void. The feeling of total emptiness spread. Now things simply didn't matter. And anyway it was better to lie still.
Peace prevailed in the floating infirmary.
Martha and Ibi are holding hands -as though in a fit of cramp, as though they are afraid of being parted if they fall asleep.
They fall asleep in the same bed. They are friends. They both come from Transylvania, where their husbands are doctors. Or where their husbands were doctors. They don't know if they're still alive.
Anuska is about forty. She was once very beautiful. Now she looks utterly spent, but one can still sense her former beauty.
Riga has been lying quite still throughout the commotion. She hasn't taken part in the uproar with the knives and forks. She is serious; one can see the traces of profound sorrow on her face. The tears roll down her cheeks. She's in a state of great distress. Was it God's will that these people should be saved? In this way? "They're behaving like animals!"
Am I one of "them"? Yes, I suppose I must be. I remember one day in the British kitchen, before we left Bergen-Belsen. Suddenly somebody shouted:
"We're free -we're free!"
I grabbed all the cups from the shelves and smashed them against the wall, shouting at the top of my voice: "I'm free!"
I kept on to the very last cup.
Then I just stood there and looked at the pile of smashed crockery- and began to cry. I was afraid, afraid for myself. This mustn't happen again. I had to regain my sanity, to begin to look like a normal person -whatever the cost.
I want to be in the company of other people.
I want to work.
I want to be like the Swedes whom I am soon to meet. What are they like anyway, these Swedish people? I can't remember anything about Sweden from my school days. I know that Sweden is in Scandinavia. I look at some of the nurses. They're tall, blonde and very beautiful. It's only now I realise how beautiful they are. I've never seen more beautiful women, and they look so calm. They also look gentle and kind. I feel like talking with one of them but how?
I slip out of bed, crouching into a little bundle. Now it's an advantage that I'm so tiny, so thin. Nobody notices me. I reach the stairs, look back -they're all fast asleep, as though unconscious. The light in the ceiling has been dimmed, not much more than a night light.
I very quickly reach the deck. The golden rays of the sun are blinding. I cover my eyes with my hands. There's a gentle breeze wafting over the ship -mild and caressing. I draw in quick breaths, to replace all that foul air with the tangy sea air. I must have appeared to be struggling for air, for I heard a Swedish nurse come running up to me: "Are you ill?" she asked.
She shielded me partially so that I could open my eyes. How beautiful she was, but how worried she looked.
Probably on account of me. She thought I was ill. I had to convince her that there was nothing the matter with me, so I smiled at her as best I could. I thought she looked pleased, and that should be enough.
She gave me a serious, studious look. Then she dashed off to a bowl of water, to get a damp cloth. She hurried back, took hold of me with great care and stretched me out on a bench. I had given up trying to explain anything. We wouldn't understand one another. She sat beside me and pressed the damp cloth to my brow.
I could learn Swedish from her, I thought. I tried first with mime and hand movements. How do you say "to work -to be hungry?" But she didn't understand what I meant. So I asked her in German and that went fairly well. I asked for paper and pencil and wrote down what I had learned. Then I read it aloud to her, and that amused her a lot. But she didn't forget to tell me that it was forbidden to leave the infirmary, so I had to go down the stairs again.
On my way down the stairs I practised what I had learned and said aloud: "I'm hungry, I'm hungry."
Suddenly somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was another nurse. She indicated that I was to accompany her. We entered a tiny single cabin. She must have been a very senior nurse to have her own cabin. I got chocolate, biscuits and fruit from her, and she told me that I mustn't tell anybody about this. Then she led me back to the stairs. I clutched my treasure protectively and went into the toilet to see what exactly I had been given. How rich I was!
But what sort of fruit was that? I had to satisfy my curiosity. Up the stairs again to find "my nurse". She was there. Before she could reprimand me, I asked her what that fruit was called.
She smiled: "It's called a banana."
This year I remember 30 years back, scared;
Dearest of all my father -the most sadly missed,
I remember, I'll never forget that year,
History has nothing to say
In search of an identity
In Malmoe we were put up at a school - "Linneskolan". Everything was confused in the beginning. People running to and fro. Lots of new things to be examined, things we had once known and then forgotten all about. We ate so much that we were sick. Maybe we thought that this was the last day before the famine. Every day huge milk cans arrived, filled with a sort of thickened milk, like yoghurt. When we first arrived we used to fling ourselves at the cans, turning them over, so that all the milk spilled onto the corridor. The supervisors hurried to the scene to see what was going on. They just looked at us. They understood. But the routine was changed, and the milk cans were delivered to a different entrance.
One day I noticed that some visitors who could speak Hungarian had arrived. They spoke with our supervisor and other staff members. Later we were summoned to the gym, but it was difficult for them to keep us quiet.
This was good news. If we had an education, we could get a job. I hurried up to the desk where they were registering the details.
"A photographer", I said.
I was offered a job in a town called Boras at 50 "kronor" a month plus board and lodging. All I had to do was to say when I could start work.
My supervisor talked me out of taking that job. The pay was a mere pittance. So nothing came of that first job opportunity.
A few weeks later I was transferred to another Swedish town, Alingås, where I met Miki Neumann. He was from Zagreb in Yugoslavia. He was just as shy as I was. We tried to find places where we could talk undisturbed. We sat on a clifftop, surrounded by magnificent trees, overlooking a small lake. Our bodies were warmed by the fading heat of the sinking sun.
"What languages do you speak, Miki?" I asked.
"The Slavic languages, a bit of English, a bit of German. And I had Latin and French at school."
"Let's conduct a sort of test, to see how much we remember", I suggested. "That's a terrific idea; tell me the present indicative of Ítre." I gave him the right answer. This was incredible. I was warm with the excitement. "Ask me another one!" Another question, another correct answer.
"Your turn now to ask me", Miki said.
We continued to test one another's linguistic skills till the dinner gong sounded.
For me this was a strange meal. It was as though I was totally oblivious of the food, as though I were trying to block out the interference, the noise. I saw nobody. I didn't see Miki either. I was absorbed in a world of my own. It was as though something were growing inside me. In my head, in my body. I was enthralled by a thumping, a beckoning, a whispering, a swinging, an almost bursting feeling of "I remember! - I can do it!" And yet there was a sort of solemnity about that feeling; I was on clouds, weightless, intoxicated- in a swoon. But humble.
In a state of utter exhaustion I fell asleep.
After breakfast the following day I was on my way to the tree-studded lake, to the cliff top. Maybe it was something I had dreamed. If so, it had been a beautiful dream - a dream I would dream again and again. I so wanted to retain and nurture those rapturous feelings. I'm sitting on a clifftop, and deep within I'm voicelessly screaming: "Dream again - remember again! -let me have the ability to remember again!"
A warm flow of darting sensations runs through my body.
It must have been an awakening. An awakening of human dignity -a state I didn't know existed. A wish, a yearning, an aspiration, a great hunger to use my brain. To use myself and to be used. To give and receive. Or was it all just a dream on a midsummer's eve? A dream of the dream at its peak of beauty. Suddenly I see, with eyes closed; I'm aware of the nearness, the sighing, the smell of sweat and the aroma of yesterday's food; I hear the tinkle of cheap necklaces and bracelets around neck, hands and ankles; the gypsy woman with the beautiful vivacious eyes, the sinuous body with legs and feet made for dancing.
I wrote a letter for her to her lover. She brought me his reply to my last letter. I read it aloud to her, several times. He too was in love.
When I had written the next letter for her -without her dictating a single word - she said: "That's exactly what I think, what I feel."
She kissed my hand, gathered her skirts, got up and disappeared.
I had passed on her feelings to the man she loved. I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. I was deeply absorbed, probing my soul, when a shadow began to indicate its presence before me. It was Miki.
"Do you feel that way too", Miki asked.
From now on we met every day at the same spot, or we waited for one another. We spoke about the past. Talking just to remember - to remember what we had learned at school, to remember the books we had read. We also taught each other new things. We became so enriched. We became - we believed - better human beings. I became happy. I smiled at everybody, but I smiled mostly at Miki. I danced round that cliff, while Miki sat on the crest.
Then I arrived in Stockholm and was transferred to the LovŲ camp. I worked in a canning factory, and one day I got burned by the scalding orange marmalade.
I decided to try to get a better job. I got in touch with an acquaintance - Herr Richter - who promised to introduce me to the court photographer. I could do a test piece. My next day off was to be the day...
As the day approached, I tried to remember all about the craft of photography - dark room procedures and the rest of it. I found that I hadn't forgotten it while I was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. I think that I must have rehearsed the formula - the composition - every single day. In some way or other it was important for me to be able to remember that formula. For me it had the status The Lord's Prayer has for a devout Christian. All that time I had the feeling that if I could only remember that formula, I would be saved. I thought that sooner or later they would need a photographer, or a photographer's assistant.
And now I could remember. Now I had written the formula down. That way I felt more confident about it.
I knew how to operate a camera, how to develop films and plates, how to retouch a glass plate. The entire process, down to producing the copies. I had been through the processes again and again. I felt, despite an attack of nerves, that I was prepared for my meeting with Herr Richter.
I told my mother about my appointment with Herr Richter. She looked at me - yes, she looked at me for a long, long time and then she said:
"You, my Ollykins, first you'll have to go to a beauty salon. Leave it to me, I'll get the money." The she left.
Shall I go for a beauty treatment? Why? I must have a look at myself in a mirror. In our barrack there's a bathroom with a toilet, a shower and a little mirror. I went in there and locked the door. Over to the mirror. How do I look? What should I look like? My hair was still short. Of course, it would have been much nicer if it had been as long as the Swedish girls' hair.
But nothing can be done about that now.
The eyes? Anyway I can see with them...Beautiful? I don't know. They are light in colour. If the eyelashes were dark, would my eyes look bigger? Would I look wiser? I don't know.
Mother has got the money for hairdo and a facial treatment. The dress was washed and ironed.
And now I stood at a bus stop, one hour's drive from Stockholm. It was eight o'clock in the morning. I had plenty of time. I didn't have to meet Herr Richter until noon, at an address in Stureplan.
I got off the bus in the centre of Stockholm. It was a delightful summer's morning. I walked along the pavement, trying to find a beauty salon. I stopped some ladies, using mime and hand movements to indicate w hat I was looking for. No. If they had understood what I was looking for, they simply wouldn't have believed that I was serious.
I gave up. Instead I went into a hairdresser's. They very quickly understood that I wanted my hair done, but they couldn't help me with the facial treatment. They could dye my eyebrows and eyelashes -black. They probably thought that it would help my appearance, so I indicated that they should go ahead. And they did. Two women worked on me for two whole hours.
My hair was washed and set. Before finishing it they went to work on the eyebrows and eyelashes. I was lying on a sort of couch. I was aware of the woman painting me with a brush. The eyebrows didn't take long. She applied two coats, to give the dye a chance of working on the thin hair. She used long brush-strokes, so that I could feel the dye working its way through the tip to the eyelashes. She worked efficiently. I'm going to have beautiful eyelashes, I thought, they're going to be long, black, soft. My eyes will shine.
But then my eyes began to smart. The black dye ran into them. The woman was reassuring. She would wash off all traces of the dye. She did it with damp cotton wool. Then she said that I could open my eyes. But I closed them quickly again. It hurt so much. My eyes ran, the pain was stinging. She resumed work with the cotton wool. She rubbed and rubbed my eyes: eyeballs, around the eyeballs and the face.
She said that now I could safely open my eyes, that there was no more dye to cause any discomfort. She was right, but the black dye was engrained -around my eyes, on my cheeks. The mirror told the terrible truth.
Then she started to wash the dye away, using some powerful liquid. Water was no use now. She rubbed and rubbed, almost massaging, scratching and scrubbing the dye away.
"It worked", she said. She wound a damp cloth around my face. I was to wear it while they worked on my hair.
I was finished. I stared in the mirror. What a visage! I was on the verge of tears. There was even less hair on my head than when I had entered the salon. It had dwindled into bubbles.
My face was swollen to twice its size. The pupils swam in tears -tears of red jelly. My cheeks were crimson, still bearing traces of that black dye. The woman told me that it would all disappear in a few days, if I just washed my face with soap and water.
I paid in a state of shock. On my way out of the salon I caught a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror. My dress, my newly washed and freshly ironed dress, was a creased and crumpled rag. And it had shrunk. I looked like a caricature -a misunderstanding -a leftover from a concentration camp.
It was nearly noon. What a pity that I couldn't wear purdah...
I arrived at the address at exactly twelve o'clock. It turned out to be a restaurant. Herr Richter was waiting for me at the entrance. He smiled at me. I couldn't smile. I was so taken up with my disastrous appearance, with my attempt to look attractive. And now? The wrong body, the wrong dress, the wrong head -and that face...
Herr Richter was very friendly.
"Surely Olly has worked up an appetite", he said. "Let's eat first. The photographer is expecting us at two."
Appetite? I had no appetite. I was fed up with myself. He led me to a sumptuous table. Several plates at each place stacked one on top of the other. And the silver. Lots of silver cutlery, laid out formally on either side of the plates.
I was very subdued. Herr Richter looked at me. I was convinced that he could guess the whole story.
He could tell from my nervousness, my uncertainty. He could understand the hopelessness, the utter failure of my attempt to look beautiful. If only I could manage to look decent.
He ordered. While waiting for the food to be served, I studied the patterns and colours on the napkin.
The waiter served the food, and Herr Richter began to eat without further ado. I drew my chair closer to the table, but I had misjudged the distance, for suddenly I happened to push the plate, knocking over the glass of wine. I quickly grabbed the glass, but at the plate of hot food fell onto my lap...
Xxx p. 83
I could no longer hold back the tears. First tears, then a sobbing and then crying. Herr Richter removed the food from my lap and asked the waiter for a damp napkin so that I could clean my dress.
While the tablecloth was being changed, I went to the ladies' room. I sat down on a chair. My thoughts were indescribable.
At exactly two o'clock we rang the court photographer's doorbell. The two men spoke together, and I assume that Herr Richter explained my predicament to him - the misery of my entrance in to the new world.
Before long I was given a glass plate to retouch. The retouching stand - covered with a black cloth - was already in position. I sat there, with a feeling of release and relief, perfectly at home - doing what I did best - where nobody could see me or disturb me. I was back to my former self again.
It took time, but I became myself. The task was waiting to be done. It was a challenge, and an exam - an exam for a passport to the future. It had to succeed. I went to work. This was nothing new to me.
I sat there for a long time - longer than necessary. I was not disturbed.
At closing time the photographer came in. I handed him the result. It had been finished long ago.
He examined it closely and then said:
"Miss Czitron, you can start tomorrow morning."
The story about the cheese and apple cake
Mother lived in Stockholm in a two-roomed apartment. She had got a job in a radio factory, where she assembled tiny components.
But the sedentary nature of the job took its toll - she was always suffering from back pains, neck pains.
The question was how could she change job, because this couldn't continue. She had always had a great talent for baking, and now she got the brilliant idea: The Swedes must learn to eat cheese and apple cakes. She would bake them at home and deliver them to a baker in downtown Stockholm.
Once she had tasted my mother's cakes, the lady in the shop agreed to go ahead with the scheme, and the very next day the first batch was delivered. Mother gave up her job at the radio factory. Now it was to be baking, baking.
My mother got a huge mixing machine. The cakes were delivered by taxi. And the production grew and grew... 50 a day, 100, 200, 400. The news spread and reached the Royal palace, which sent a messenger every day to the baker's to pick up some cakes.
To keep up with the orders, my mother had to start the mixing of the dough at five o'clock in the morning. The noise penetrated through the floor to the apartment beneath, where they lay and shook in their beds. At first they thought it was an earthquake, but when they discovered that the din came from mother's apartment, they became very angry.
This was a scandal. It had to be stopped. Mother commenced operations an hour later, but the neighbours downstairs were not satisfied.
One morning two officials from the health authorities visited my mother. She invited them in, and served coffee and lovely cakes.
She told them the story of her life and about her two sick children, all the while plying them with coffee and cakes. She could no longer stand the strain of working in the factory, so that's why she had started this production.
The two gentlemen had little chance to say anything - or ask anything. Mother had told them everything - in her own way.
One of the gentlemen - a man called Carl - got up and took my mother by the hand, gave it a friendly squeeze, and with tears in his eyes said:
"Fru Czitron, we understand your position perfectly."
Carl fell in love with my mother, and she continued to bake the delicious cakes. In fact she did rather well out of it.
One grey autumn morning the doorbell rang. It was Carl. With his heart full of love and his eyes full of tears he had come in the line of duty. The neighbours had continued to complain, but the state had now put premises at her disposal, where Mother could bake her cakes in peace. Carl showed Mother the official letter.
Mother had three months in which to make up her mind...
Copyright © 1999-2002 Scandinavia SIG - Reprinting or copying of any of the material on the Scandinavia SIG Website is not allowed without prior permission from the Olly Ritterband and the Scandinavia SIG Coordinator