(Posted to this site on 2/11/2004 )
THIS BOOK IS A PRAYER AND A REMEMBERING, A HOPE AND A SONG.
I close this song of a murdered people with the words of a sonderkommando* who was a former yeshiva student from Suwalki , Poland . He was a businessman and a writer, and one of the leaders of the valiant Sonderkommando Uprising. Although they knew there was no hope for them personally to be saved, the sonderkommandos tried to deter the killing by bombing the crematorium.
Zalmen Gradowski wrote a chronicle of what he saw, which he buried in the ashes of the dead, hoping that his words would be resurrected one day. He wished the world to know how the Jews suffered and how they died. He also wished earnestly that someone might remember his family. Only his introduction to the tragic events he witnessed has been excerpted, not his devastating description of the events themselves.
I write these words in the moments of my greatest despair. l do not know, I do not believe, that I will live to read these lines “after the storm….”Who knows if I will ever again behold a ‘free” man and be able to speak with him? It may be that these lines that I am now writing will be the sole witnesses to what was my life. But I shall be happy if only my writings should reach you, citizen of the free world. Perhaps a spark of my inner fire will ignite in you…
I have a request of you: this is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning…
I pass on to you only a small part of what took place in the hell of Birkenau- Auschwitz . It is for you to comprehend the reality… and from these fragments, you will be able to construct a picture of how our people were killed.
I ask also a personal favor, dear finder and publisher of these writings…. Find out who 1 am…. Then ask my relatives for the portrait of my family, as well as that of my wife and me and, using your discretion, print them in this book. In this way I hope to immortalize the dear, beloved names of those for whom, at this moment, I cannot even expend a tear! For I live in an inferno of death, where it is impossible to measure my great losses. And of course I am condemned to die. Can the dead mourn the dead? But you, unknown “free” citizen of the world, I beg you to shed a tear for them when you have their pictures before your eyes. I dedicate all my writings to them-this is my tear, my lament for my family and people.**
Zalmen Gradowski was killed leading the Sonderkommando Uprising he had helped to organize and lead on October 7, 1944.
His voice speaks to us from beyond the grave, an echo of many voices that will never be heard. Except for their photographs, there are no traces that remain.
You have seen the photos. You have heard the stories. You are now a witness once removed, to use my mother’s words, of “the lives that existed, once upon a time.” Elie Wiesel believes, “It is up to the witness to capture it, shape it, transmit it.”
In remembering the world’s silenced voices, both past and present, and in hearing both their song and their lament, this Afterword belongs to you.
*Sonderkommandos were those Jews forced to drag the bodies out of the gas chamber into the ovens to be burned into ashes. “Song of a Murdered Jewish People” is the title of an epic poem by renowned Yiddish and Hebrew poet Yitzhak Katzenelson, who was killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
**Excerpted from “The Chronicle of Zalmen Gradowski,” in Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, David G. Roskies, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988, pp. 548-549.