There is nothing more precious or important than one’s child. A mother carries him or her within her for nine months and what was hers becomes his or hers. How can or could anyone understand what it is like to give up this piece of yourself? How can anyone comprehend being forced to send one’s children to death? And how can we deal with others and ourselves afterwards? ‘The Holocaust shows that human beings can and will do anything to each other. We have more power, more freedom, than is good for us” (Gargas, 60). Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel are two accounts of the anguish, sorrow and guilt a mother experiences when faced with such a devastating situation. Through this essay I will address the complex issues both women must deal with in their life after losing their children.
Sophie Zawistowska “is a real Polish survivor of Auschwitz” (Gargas, 59). Although her story is fictional, her story is real enough to have been inspired by a true survivor or victim of the Nazi concentration camps. Through her tale we learn of the guilt a mother brings with her when she survives a concentration camp.
As a child, Sophie knew many languages and could type, so her father (a professor at the University) used her services as his personal “secretary”. Her father forced Sophie to marry his co-worker. She was very unhappy with the marriage, but had to obey her father. While working for her father he would speak his essays aloud and she would type them out. Sophie learned about who her father really was through his speeches. He hated Jews and thought “Vernichtung, that they should all be murdered” (Styron, 243). It is ironic that such thoughts would be the death of his grandchildren. The Nazi came and took away her father and husband. Sophie and her family later learn that they had been shot to death for being intellectuals and Polish. Not too long after, the Nazi start taking control of where they lived, in Warsaw. While living here, Sophie falls in love with Jozef, and they have two children, Jan and Eva. Jozef and his sister Wanda run the Underground Resistance, and he is in charge of killing Polish people that betray the Jews. Eventually Jozef’s killing causes his own death- the Nazi come and cut his throat. Sophie’s mother becomes weak and sick. While trying to nurse her mother back to health, Sophie takes on the role of mother. She decides that her mother will not regain her strength until she is able to eat meat (which are being gathered and sent to the German Reich and were illegal for Poles to have). So Sophie travels to the country and purchases a black market ham. When she gets off the train, an SS officer spies the large bulge under her coat, and she is arrested. While in the jail cell, Sophie sits and waits with her children for an unknown fate.
After nearly a day or more on a train filled to over maximum capacity (now with some dead or sick), Sophie and her children arrive at Auschwitz Birkenau. When they get off, women, men, children, old, young, sick and healthy are all separated in what is known as a “selection.” Sophie and her children are next in the selection. It is here that an SS officer forces such a cruel and unbelievable choice that Sophie does not think that he could possibly be serious: “Sophie’s forced choice is that she must choose which one of her two children to have murdered by the Nazi” (Sirlin, 7). How does one respond to such a demand? Sophie in absolute shock and remorse: “felt her legs crumble. I can’t choose! She began to scream. Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium” (Styron, 483).
In an interview between William Styron (the author of Sophie’s Choice) and Rhoda Sirlon, Styron comments that “It’s absurd, but there is no right selection” (Sirlon, 110). I agree: there is no justification for this choice, Sophie making no choice or her doing the opposite (and choosing the other child). Either way Sophie would have made the wrong decision, and that’s what makes Sophie unable to operate while at Auschwitz and even more so after the camps are liberated. For her remaining time at the concentration camp, Sophie fears also losing her other child (the only child left), her son Jan. She is very careful to avoid the repercussions against her child that would follow if she disobey while working for the powerful Commander Rudolf Hoss. When she learns that most of the children are being killed anyway, she resorts to her son’s last chance at life. She is willing to give up her body (sexually) to Hoss so that her son can be freed. Sophie introduces the idea of putting her son in a program Lebensborn, where children who looked German were adopted by German families and therefore survived the camp. Hoss agrees, but Sophie never learns of her son’s transfer, and she is overwhelmed with guilt and grief that she can not save him: “If only I knew what happened to Jan, if I could only find him, that might truly save me from all this sadness that comes over me. It might even save me from the guilt I have felt over Eva” (Styron, 493). The Nazis leave Sophie with an emptiness, like so many victims who never got to say their final goodbyes to those they loved.
When the camp is liberated, Sophie has lost everything and everyone she ever cared about. She comes to America knowing no one. When Nathan “finds” her, Sophie weighs eighty-five pounds. She has a severe case of anemia and has lost her teeth and has to have dentures made. Nathan buys her expensive clothing and jewelry, and everything she dreamed about within the camps for twenty months. I’m not sure if Sophie truly loves Nathan, or it’s just that she needs to feel love after so much heartbreak. They have a very odd relationship. Sophie tells Stingo she loves Nathan with all her heart, yet, he beats her, calls her filthy names and threatens to kill her. Can Sophie forgive herself enough to let love in? Her loving bond with Nathan “asserts that love may yet be possible, that loving must not be an absurdity after Auschwitz. The book also urges us to conquer our grief through love and laughter, without which aggression against the self or others is the only alternative” (Sirlin, 7). But, since Sophie can neither forgive herself nor forget, she cannot truly love herself. Sophie attempts suicide when Auschwitz is liberated, and “flirted with it (the idea of suicide) during a weekend in Connecticut with Nathan; she also tries to drown herself at Coney Island and was rescued by Stingo. Sophie, has seen the heartless immensity of the universe; the infinite of her soul has been drowned long before the actual suicide” (Sirlin, 72). Although Sophie literally is liberated in 1945, she is not fully freed until 1947, “when she gave up her own life” (Gargas, 60). The unbearable guilt of losing her two children never fully allows Sophie to escape the concentration camps. All she wants is to forget the past, but is always reminded. Her body was freed when the camps were liberated, but her soul never freed from the grasps of guilt. The only way for her to forget the past and forgive herself is for her to commit suicide.
Olga Lengyel is a real survivor of Auschwitz Birkenau and the Holocaust. No fictional story can compare to the true stories and tortures this brave woman witnessed and survived! Olga and her husband were both doctors in Transylvania. He was taken away by the SS officers and Olga is told the reason is that his medical services are needed by German soldiers and that if she wants she can go with him. So that she and her husband will not be separated, Olga packs up their children and parents and runs to the trains to try and catch up with her husband. Together, she and other families scramble to find their loved ones, and realize that they have been tricked. The train’s doors open, and people are stuffed in like cattle, including Olga and her family. For days, the young and old do not eat or drink. For days, men , women and children do not know where they are going or what will happen to them. They have heard the stories of the concentration camps, but could not begin to believe them until now.
Days pass, and finally they arrive at Auschwitz Birkenau. When they exit the trains, like in Sophie’s Choice, a “selection” is being made: children, the old, and “useless” are put on one side and the strong, men and women able to work are placed on the other. When it comes to Olga’s family, her father and youngest son are automatically taken to the side for the children and elderly. Because she was told that side was designated for those who would not work because they were too young or old, Olga makes a mistake for which she can never forgive herself. She tells the SS officer, who thought her eldest son was over 12 (the cut-off point for child versus “man”), that he is not yet 12 and that her mother would like to stay and watch her grandchildren. Later, Olga finds out that all those picked for the same side as her children and parents were sent to death in the gas chamber.
Throughout her imprisonment in the concentration camps, Olga works as a latrine cleaner and other grotesque jobs, until a hospital is created and she is able to give her services to it. The sad part of her helping was that much of it went to waste. Most times, the people she nursed back to health were sent to the gas chamber anyway. The most devastating example of this is when a pregnant mother gave birth, both “mother and her child were sent to the gas chamber” (Lengyel, 110). Olga could not sit and watch both mother and child die, and decided she could at least save the mother. To save such lives, Olga had to take the infants:She watched young and old get off the train, as she had once done and felt helpless. Who would listen to warnings from an emaciated body in rags? “And so the same tragedies were repeated. Seeking to spare their children from hard labor, they lied about their age and willingly sent them to the gas chamber” (Lengyel, 97).And so, the Germans succeeded in making murderer of even us. To this day the picture of those murdered babies haunts me. Our own children had perished in the gas chambers and were cremated in the Birkenau ovens, and we dispatched the lives of others before their voices had left their tiny lungs. Often I sit and think what kind of fate would these creatures have had? Perhaps we killed a Pasteur, a Mozart, an Einstein. The only meager consolation is that by these murders we saved the mothers (Lengyel, 111).
After losing her whole family, Olga decides she can’t allow herself to give in and die! She will survive to tell the torture she and other victims went through at Auschwitz Birkenau. Olga has memorized the specific names of the cruelest SS officers, the ones who went beyond their duties to cause unbelievable cruelties. She witnessed the horrible experiments, womens breasts were injected with liquids and formed cists, bumps or died. According to her gruesome account, “One of the favorite experiments was conducted on newly arrived women whose menstruation was still normal. During their periods, they were told roughly, ‘You will be shot in two days’. The German wanted to know what effect such news would have on the menstrual flow” (Lengyel, 181). The results: women given such news would hemorrhage severely. These experiments were useless, cruel and in no way for scientific research. They were conducted to bring further miseries to the already weak and heartbroken women of the concentration camps.
The Russians were moving in on the Germans, so the fearful SS officers gathered their prisoners on a death march away from liberation. Olga was one of the few who was able to escape and find freedom.
Olga did as she promised herself while in the camps, she wrote this book showing the world the many horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. I would highly recommend reading Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys. This true story, both inspiring and remarkable is of a mother, who overcame devastating losses. Olga escaped the life of the concentration camps and was still able to write about the horrible guilt that has weighed over her since the very first day she arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau.
It is hard to think how “one mortal being can be the vessel to contain such grief” (Styron, 52). Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel show that life must go on, through happiness as well as grief. Sophie and Olga suffered the worst punishment a mother could ever suffer, having their children taken away to death. Sophie’s forced complicit ness in her children’s deaths and her inability to overcome her grief causes her suicide- she just gives up living. Olga shows that although she will never forget what was done to her she must go on with life. Olga Lengyel survived to write Five Chimneys. She survived so she could tell the world what she and 11 million voiceless victims experienced, so such atrocities would never happen again.
We must deal with life after losing those who are most precious to us, or we will suffer the same guilt stricken life as Sophie does: “Sophie, and so many other Holocaust survivors, can never conquer their grief and fully rejoin the living. How can they forgive their tormentors, forgive the murder of millions?” (Sirlon, 76). We cannot build the “future when we are not finished with the past? How can we avoid the old mistakes when we don’t even recognize them yet? We have a choice: do we intend to freeze fast in self deception? Or do we intend to carry through the cleaning up of ourselves and thereby grant ourselves and our children a full, new life?” (Gargas, 38). Sophie’s choice is to live in despair, and it inhibited her ever being happy again. We cannot change the past, forget it or forgive the hurt. But we can stand up to despair and show we are not afraid anymore, that we are ready to live again.
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