Monday, 20 January 2014
Surviving in the camp
Clara did not spend long in Theriesenstadt. Just under a month in fact. But I’ve been very concerned about getting the detail about that stay right. We always assume it to have been a more benign place than many other camps and indeed at the time that Clara was there it was more of a transit camp than anything else though it also provided cheap labour for a country at war.
We have little idea of what it was actually like for her in the camp. And in my story-line I’ve included some fictitious characters – a pregnant mother who gives birth in the camp and her little daughter. I’ve borrowed a businessman who carried on running his business from within the camp. This man really existed and he was able to influence his captors. Here, I’ve used his influence to spare the lives of Clara’s friends and her two children.
But was Theriesenstadt all that benign actually? Probably not at the time that Clara was there. It wasn’t a death camp – a gas chamber was added much later. Neither was it the “holiday camp” fabricated for the Red Cross, nor were there yet football matches or an orchestra. Compared with Clara’s former upper middle class lift it would be pretty miserable there. Am I getting that across?
I’m currently reading Primo Levi’s If This is a Man /The Truce where we have a detailed picture of what Auschwitz was like towards the end of World War II. People had ways of surviving. Levi was enterprising and sold flints he “stole” from his work place and “sold” them for bread. Clara doesn’t survive but by being such a nice person sets everything up for her friends to survive. She is so good to everyone that she brings out the best in them.
Levi writes about Auschwitz, which we all believe to be possibly the worst of the death camps. I think I’ve made Theriesenstadt as gruesome. Clara’s family believed for years that she was transported to Auschwitz. We have recently found out, in fact, that it was Treblinka.
It’s likely that she and all the other old people in that transport would have been shot on arrival. They would probably not have known what was happening or not until the last moment. This was actually a quicker death than being gassed which at that time took on average twenty minutes. We don’t see that particular scene in my version of Clara’s story. In the epilogue the two children are now quite grown up and help with archiving of information about the Rexingen Jews. At that point they believe that she went to Auschwitz. Only in the notes at the end, and here, do I reveal that where she actually she went.