Part memoir, part letter to a long-gone parent, Göran Rosenberg’s beautifully written A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz – winner of Sweden’s August Prize and available in paperback beginning Feb. 28, 2017 from Other Press – recounts the author’s quest, as the son of a pair of Holocaust survivors, for the spirit of his father.
For while the young Polish Jew David Rosenberg physically survived the Łódź Ghetto, the selection process at Auschwitz, and the archipelago of forced-labor concentration camps where many Jews who weren’t immediately murdered were worked to death in the late stages of World War Two – and despite proceeding, amid ongoing postwar struggles, to marry his Polish sweetheart and build a new life in a new language in the very foreign country of Sweden – in the end he couldn’t escape his wartime experiences.
As his son writes, addressing his father as he does throughout the book, and defying a half-century-old diagnosis from a Swedish psychiatrist, “the shadows that kill you don’t come from inside. They come from outside and catch up with you and surround you with darkness.”
To reconstruct his father’s life Rosenberg researches official records, eyewitness accounts and other materials from the Ghetto, the war years, and the years in Sweden as first a refugee, later a resident alien, finally a citizen. Rosenberg freely admits how fragmentary and unreliable are his own boyhood memories of the place where he created his own life and became a person, yet where his father could never fully realize a new self because, as Rosenberg decides,
we can only make our home elsewhere if some kind of link lives on with the place, the people, and the language that shaped us.
But for people like you, there’s no such link. The place that shaped you is no longer there, nor the people, nor the language, nor even the memory. Between you and the world that you once made your own towers a wall of pain that memory cannot penetrate.
Yet memory is the essential active force in keeping the past alive. Hence this book. About a German industrialist at whose factory his father was a slave laborer, but who after the war claimed to have been “a hero and benefactor” for providing conditions somewhat less inhuman that at some other camps, Rosenberg writes:
A blatant lie loosens the ground beneath what can’t be forgotten and turns it into a quagmire. In its defense against such a weapon, therefore, memory must time and time again mobilize its collective arsenal of witnesses, documents, and relics to fortify, time and time again, the loosening ground beneath it.
In that passage as throughout the book, Rosenberg uses repetitive phrasing to help imbue his prose with a poetic quality. Sarah Death’s translation merits applause for conveying the tenor of the original Swedish.
In vividly impressionistic passages Rosenberg describes life in the Ghetto and his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. But the key word in the title is not “Auschwitz” but “from.” This is primarily the author’s reconstruction of his father’s twisted route from that iconic death camp toward revival.
The most striking episodes and details are the obscure sorts that don’t figure in mainstream accounts of the Holocaust. There are the Red Cross food packages marked for delivery specifically to the Jewish refugees on a train that wanders through Germany as the Nazi war machine disintegrates and survivors’ hopes are raised and dashed and raised again. There are the quiet, half-hidden memorials to some of the Holocaust’s final mass murders, some freshly tended, others not, far from the infamous concentration camps whose names everyone knows. There is West Germany’s refusal to grant David individual monetary reparations because a doctor judged that his experiences in the camps hadn’t permanently reduced his capacity to work enough to merit support.
As Rosenberg uncovers his father’s story he also spins out his own, and that’s what makes the book unusual and especially compelling. He delves into the dry history of the Swedish town near Stockholm where his father and mother ended up settling. He describes the truck factory where his father made his living; the forest where he himself played as a small boy; the beach where the family went in the summer; and the new Swedish neighbors and co-workers who mostly behaved hospitably toward the Rosenbergs amid their country’s complex and sometimes contradictory sociopolitical approach to its Jewish refugees.
He refers again and again to the train that passes near his town and the canal it passes over, tracing how the burg evolved, from an important pass-through point for people and goods moving between Stockholm and the rest of Europe and the world, to a relative backwater.
The “brief stop” of the title is meant figuratively; after some peregrinations, the Rosenbergs settled in the town of Södertälje for the rest of David’s life. But hardworking and ambitious as he was, David’s path to a bright future never opened up, so no stop he made could become a real home the way it could for his son.
From the kitchen and living room windows in the small first-floor apartment in the block nearest the forest, you can see people moving about in the railroad cars. And people being moved along by the railroad cars. And with every train, behind the reflections in the railroad car windows, a new world, mutely oblivious of its brief stop in the world that is to be mine.
Railroad cars brought Rosenberg’s father and mother to Auschwitz, but railroad cars also brought them from Auschwitz, and eventually to the town where they would try to start fresh and raise a family. Rosenberg is a well-known writer in Sweden, but in this book he tells us nothing about his adult life. Rather, it’s a loving, questioning, aching letter from a onetime little boy to the father the Nazis took from him. It deserves an honored place among the Holocaust literature that stands as a memorial and a reminder for the ages.