Books:Last Stop Auschwitz

Eddy de Wind was a young doctor in the Netherlands, in fact the last Jewish doctor to graduate from Leiden during the war. His story is thought to be the only authentic story about life in Auschwitz written in the notorious camp.

It’s also unusual in that it was first published in 1946, and only translated into English in late 2019. To tell his story De Wind has chosen the use the name Hans as his narrator, but it is his story and the story of his wife Friedel, who was a nurse.

It should be said here that I approached the book with a degree of scepticism following the row that ensued after The Tattooist of Auschwitz, written by New Zealand novelist Heather Morris, was denounced by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre as containing gross inaccuracies. Of course, that led to a multitude of discussions about how reliable memory is, what latitude historical novelists have, and cultural appropriation. It was an abysmally badly written book, and so I was relieved to find that this book appears to have all its credentials lined up.

De Wind and Friedel were part of the round up of Jewish people in the Netherlands to Westerbork labour camp. There he worked as a doctor, frequently taking chances by declaring people unfit to travel to protect them from being sent away on the transport trains that took them to concentration camps outside of the Netherlands.

But eventually the couple too found themselves on a transport train to Auschwitz.

The rawness of the text was intended. De Wind turned down the first publisher who wanted it rewritten and smoothed over.

The horrors contained in this memoir are not gratuitous; as a doctor De Wind was saved from most of the worst detail in the camps, although he spent time in Birkenau, and this book gives a terrifying view of what Birkenau was. If you visit it now, it is hard to imagine the scale of it, but the stench of death still hangs in the air.

So, a qualified doctor becomes a porter, sometimes attending to minor injuries, and watches some of the finest minds in Europe (known in the camp as the prominents) destroyed. Last Stop Auschwitz offers a view not only of the terrible human loss of life, but also of the loss of culture and learning.

For most of the time they were in Auschwitz De Wind and Friedel were in bunkers next to each other. So, at risk of discovery and almost certain death, they were able to send notes and occasionally speak to each other. Friedel’s story tells of the experiments that were done on women to render them infertile, and the experiments on twins. The detail of what was done to these women is beyond appalling, and yet Friedel and De Wind find time to smuggle food to each other, to talk, to even imagine a future. De Wind was terrified that she would be used in one of the experiments and rendered sterile. The human spirit is a strong thing, if you can be in hell and still imagine a future that may have your children in it.

Rather like a series of photographs found a few years ago, showing prisoners – most looking close to death – playing cards and mugging it up for the camera. De Wind’s story reminds us that prisoners in the camps were real people – like us – not some homogenous group of misery.

There are also nuances in an almost unaltered first draft account that tell of the vicissitudes of what happened in the bunkers when different leaders took over control of the bunkers.

There are moments of some happiness, when the women are sent to pick herbs in the forests, and Friedel tells De Wind that she was so happy to be outside, but so exhausted by a trip that sapped her strength, given that inmates were living on a litre of soup and a piece of bread as their meal.

The couple remained in the camp as the Russians approached and the war was over. The flurry of killing the weak, burning papers by the SS, and sending inmates on the infamous death marches in the snowy winter are written from a perspective of chaotic thinking. The author and Friedel can’t agree whether it is better to stay or leave, and so they are in a limbo in a camp that the SS have largely fled, having to make decisions of their own.

It is not a spoiler to say that both De Wind and Friedel survived their ordeal. But it left deep scars, which are revealed in an excellent précis of what happened to them after their return to the Netherlands.
A remarkable addition to the canon of Holocaust literature.

More than ever now, we need to read and remember that although we said it would never happen again, it has over and over again and still continues to this day.

Having visited Auschwitz and being literally speechless for days afterwards, one thing was particularly poignant for this reader. De Wind noted that there was almost no bird song around Auschwitz and Birkenau. He put it down to the forests being so thick. When I visited in 1990 shortly after the Berlin Wall came down the one thing that was noticed by the group of journalists I travelled with was that we heard not a single bird as we got closer and closer to the infamous gate bearing the words: Arbeit Macht Frei.

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