It was the feast day of Saint Maximilian Kolbe on 14th August. Coincidentally, I was at Mass that morning to hear our parish priest, the son of Polish refugees after the War, speak very movingly of the Saint’s life, his apostolic work as a Franciscan friar in Poland and Japan, and his heroic death in Auschwitz in 1941, when he offered his life in exchange for that of a husband and father.
I had Maximilian Kolbe’s life in mind as I read a book translated into English and published this year: Last Stop Auschwitz by Eddy de Wind (Doubleday £14.99). First published in Dutch in 1946, it is the autobiography of a young Dutch Jewish psychiatrist, sent to the concentration camp in 1943, along with his wife, Friedel. De Wind remained in Auschwitz for several months after it was liberated by the Russians, helping to nurse the sick. During this time he wrote his memoir – seemingly the only memoir, of the Shoah literature subsequently published, which was written on the spot with all the urgency and freshness of a man on a mission: to make sense of the horrors he had experienced.
No matter how many times one comes across accounts like de Wind’s, they remain almost impossible to comprehend; such human bestiality, conceived by an advanced Western nation, remains unfathomable, but still a reminder of the depths man can sink to. De Wind’s first impressions of the vast camp were deliberately deceptive: “Everything was clean, well-painted and shining in the bright autumn sun. It could have a been a model village”. In fact, this veneer only hid the nightmare beneath: the violence, the casual cruelty, the sadistic bureaucratic rules.
What kept the young doctor alive was partly the luck of being allocated to Block 9 as a medic, rather than working outside in sub-zero temperatures for hours while half-starved; and partly the desire to encourage his wife, whom he had met and married months earlier at Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp, to stay alive. She was in the gruesome Block 10, where medical experiments were carried out on women prisoners. Again, through luck she managed to avoid the worst of these.
De Wind writes in the third person, calling himself “Hans” as a way to distance himself from what he had experienced and thus not be overwhelmed by it. Of the enormous Auschwitz complex, with its slave labour camp, Auschwitz 1, its killing centre (Birkenau), its Buna factories, its camps for mining and agriculture, he writes grimly, “Its workers were cheaper than anywhere else in the world…They didn’t need any pay and ate almost nothing”; and there was always a plentiful supply of new slave labourers when they died in their thousands through exhaustion, disease or gassing.
When the camp collapsed towards the end of the war as the Russians approached and the death marches had left, “Hans” relates that “It was strange that life still went on, the Earth kept turning…the universe doesn’t care whether we’re happy or die like dogs in the snow.” Both de Wind and Friedel managed to survive and return to Holland – but their marriage could not sustain the trauma they had endured and they separated in 1957.
It is unlikely that Eddy de Wind ever heard of Maximilian Kolbe, who was canonised in 1982. In his professional life he specialised in the treatment of those with “concentration camp syndrome”, while the Saint is revered by Catholics for the ultimate sacrifice he made, telling the guards who asked his identity: “I am a Catholic priest.”