A Christmas Eve in a Concentration Camp, penned by my dad in 1944. Translated by me.
My father spent time as a political prisoner in three different concentration camps. Melk was an annexe camp of Mauthausen in Austria. For all of his short life he espoused and advocated freedom, faith and forgiveness.
For the past two weeks all the camp inmates could think about was Christmas. As the holiday grew closer, the mood deepened and intensified. Two concerns highlighted the hushed conversations among the group of prisoners while they worked: will we get some time off during the holidays? Will they give us better food to eat? And, if they do, what food will they feed us and how much will we get? Rest and “food”…that’s what anyone really cared about.
There were those who fondly remembered and spoke about the ‘good old days’, recalling fat and warm Christmas Eves spent in freedom. Food, drinks, sweets, cigarettes, fine clothes, and lounging around dominated their conversations. In no time, however, the desperate men succumbed to their deeper feelings of dashed hopes and dreams, angering one another with their cursing and swearing. For a moment their spirits remained free, drawing strength and nourishment from memories of happier times and fully-laden tables.
'Oh may they all not wait too long for the perfect Christmas Eve to come'
As I contemplated the meaning of Christmas through a prisoner’s -a *häftling’s- eyes, wistful images reminiscent of *Andriolli’s flair for indulgence and carefreeness in contrast to *Grottger’s bottomless misery and despair, I thought about the possibility of creating a new Christmas in a German concentration camp…an expression of a new reality of a new time with new people.
I entered into a silent alliance with block leader No. 3: Franz Sikorski.
“Ok”, the “ruler and master” of block 3 snapped back: “Fine, make your own Christmas Eve!”
The content for the evening's celebration was born during a train ride between *Melk -*Loosdorf. Even after a heavy day of labour, already a new mood seemed to permeate the group of passengers. I was also able to gather a few more Polish prisoners from the
*”Negrelli" commando. Rehearsals began...
The repertoire of Christmas carols was ready.
Christmas Eve had finally arrived. We finished work at 2 o’clock that day. Back at Block 3, in a long corridor on the third floor, there appeared to be a large group of prisoners immersed in curious conversations. At the top of the stair flight I see a small, modestly decorated Christmas tree.
It’s 7 o’clock in the evening. The assembly of inmates shuffle in. Camp stripes fill the corridor. Roll-call formation. They line up in groups of five, evenly spaced, row by row, filling any gaps between them. Shiny “highway strips" can be seen on their shorn heads under the bright ceiling lamps.
Silent whispers. Many skeptical glances. We all wait for the “fürher” …and the order.
The proud beast enters the barracks. In the corridor, 54 prisoners stand in frozen stillness.
Franz Sikorski reads us the daily report, ending with:
“Today is Christmas Eve. Although I personally don't believe in all of this, maybe there is something in it. I want there to be order. Don't give me a reason to have to punish someone at this time. My mother was Polish. I remember that on Christmas Eve her family always sang Christmas carols at home. And we will do it today here in the gulag. Let everyone sing. It must be cheerful.”
The Christmas tree glows brilliantly with electric lights attached to its branches. A group of Frenchmen step forward in front of all the prisoners of the third block. They sing carols in their own language. A church melody sounds strangely tender.
Then the Italians sing. The chorus is dominated by beautiful singing. Bel canto. It seems as though angel voices are falling upon us from beneath the ceiling of a cathedral. The Christmas spirit is growing.
The Greeks follow.… an odd-sounding tone of words. No one understands them.
And now the Poles! I go out with my group. My heart is in my throat…
We begin with “God is born!”
Inconspicuously, I look over at Franz’s face and see the gleam in his eyes. An odd grimace of a smile. His eyes seem turned outward, as if lost in thought, very, very far away from this place.
A thunderous applause.
The singing continues:
“When Christ is Born”,
"Hush Little Jesus”,
These Polish melodies tug at our heartstrings.
A new reality.
Applause! Applause! Applause!
The prisoners are beaming with Joy. In this gulag, in this circle of Satan, Christ is born.
A small light found in the darkest of places.
But it does not end here. There's more.
We sing carols arranged especially for the vengeful Franz (after all, sometimes it is good to throw some flimsy bone to a dog that always wants to bite).
We sing the song - "He lies in the manger".
At our gulag there is another blockleader, who comes from Trzemeszno.
So we sing him a song, too: “When Jesus is born”.
Franz can't believe his ears because he knows this blockführer has beaten so many men to a pulp!!
Human beings… blood, love, striped pyjamas, forgiveness, howling pain, broken clubs, bloody chair legs, songs, crime, starvation, suffering, death, hatred... and the choir continues to sing... a Christmas carol for him.
Caged within the walls of this Nazi prison and execution building, on a peaceful December night, a Polish victory song suddenly arises:
“Our entire country will stand
The *Piast stronghold will stand
The White Eagle will prevail
The Polish people will prevail!”
The patriotic mood is shared by Franz as well. He also sings about the victory of the White Eagle.
All the Poles are singing now. The amiable Stasiek Lechowski sings, the limestone labourer Stasiu Niebudek sings, the old, owl-faced Aleks Mikołajczyk sings, the handsome Janek Wiśniewski, and the unforgettable Jurek Wojciechowski,...they all sing too.
The spirit of a new Christmas Eve now reigns over the holidays.
We feel good.
Photo credit: “One Spring” — Gurs Camp, 1941 — By Karl Robert Bodek and Kurt Conrad Löw — Watercolor, India Ink, and Pencil on Paper — 14.4 x 10.3 cm — Collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center
*häftling: German for prisoner. The name häftling not only declares one's imprisonment in the Lager, but also signifies how their former identity as an individual, as a human being, has been overridden by their status as a prisoner.
*Andriolli: Michał Elwiro Andriolli was a Polish illustrator, painter and architect of Italian descent. He is notable for his illustrations to Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz.
*Grottger:Artur Grottger was a painter and draughtsman representative of late romanticism who worked in Vienna and Lviv.
*Melk-Loosdorf: prisoners work consisted primarily of digging an underground tunnel complex in the Wachberg hill which is situated between Melk and Loosdorf.
*Nigrelli- one of the building companies hired out by the SS camp direction.
*Piast: The period of rule by the Piast dynasty between the 10th and 14th centuries is the first major stage of the history of the Polish state.
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Hi, I'm Lydia- a modern-day warrior of the heart with a mission to reconcile the mystery and mastery of Love.