Friday, January 07, 2011

In Depot

I’m reading In Depot, a journal written by the Jewish journalist Philip Mechanicus, while he was staying in Camp Westerbork during the war. He saw himself as a chronicler of life in the camp, and he wrote detailed and almost detached entries in his diary on a daily basis: about the mud, the crowding in the barracks, the shipments of persons picked up in raids, and the weekly shipments of hundreds of people each Tuesday with destination Poland.
Poland, more than ever the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller [had yet returned, or sent news.]
The facts are old, the details new. What amazes me most is the immense and intricate administration the Germans kept for the extermination of the Jews. The scores of lists of exceptions that were maintained: the baptised Jews, the half-Arian Jews, the German Jews, the foreign Jews, the ones who had bought their place on a list with diamonds, and the Weinreb list, put together by the prominent Jew Weinreb. The sick, the ones under punishment, the ones with privileged jobs, all these Jews held special positions of which they hoped or believed that they would exempt them from transportation.
Until a decree from Berlin annihilated their hopes with the stroke of a pen, and they were sent away on the next train. And then new lists emerged.
Why? Why, if they knew in advance what the end result was going to be?
While these thousands of people were held in storage, they squabbled and fought over food, over room for their luggage, over stolen shoes in the winter; they held chess tournaments and impromptu concerts; they basked in the sun behind barbed wire; they celebrated birthdays and visited amongst each other.
They tried to sabotage their work for the German war industry while they politely passed the newspaper from gentleman to gentleman.
What makes the diary even more poignant is the knowledge of hindsight. We know what happened at the other end of that train journey; we know why the journal ends abruptly.
Mechanicus boarded the train himself.

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