The bed of Rudolf Höss
The story goes like this:
Once upon a crime…
Tamira is our magic child. We’ve always followed her lead, ever since she was an infant. She shepherds the family into all our adventures.
She is five and a half years old, and we’re living in Sweden. Everybody in Sweden is entitled to six weeks of paid vacation, even rabbis. The vacation days needn’t be contiguous; you could jumble them up throughout the year. So we did. One summer week we decide to drive across Europe and back again. And that’s the story.
We’ve been wanting to re-trace my mother’s march of the living, from Auschwitz back to Bergen-Belsen. So we board an overnight ferry from Malmö to Gdansk on the Polish coast, then drive to Auschwitz. We pull up to the gate … Arbeit Macht Frei … and just as we’re pulling up, 6pm, the gates close automatically in front of the car. I pump my fist: “You can’t deny me entrance to Auschwitz!” We came all the way across the Baltic. “I won’t be denied!” I rung and rang and ring the bell.
A voice at last answers: “Go home. We’re closed.”
To drive with bouncy children back to Krakow is a mean feat, and Karen and I bristle against the thought of sleeping in Auschwitz city. I actually knew a Jew from Auschwitz, a man from my shul in Göteborg, who helped construct the camp. It was a POW camp where Russian combatants were housed and Polish dissidents were tortured. But the Jews and Gypsies were up the road in Birkenau. That was the killing centre, where my mother and her sister fought to survive. We’re examining our options, driving slowly up the road … beautiful mansions, enormous …
Tamushki pipes up: “I need the bathroom!” I park the car in the driveway of a small palace, stroll up to the door, and pull the clanger back twice. Nothing. I hear a noise and clang again. An eye, the angriest eye, peers out at me through the peephole. Such a dour eye. The eye gazes down to find my daughter. In a swoosh the door opens, a woman grabs Tamira with a raucous hug and brings her into the bowels of the house. I am still standing on the doorstep. Tamira returns a few minutes later with an ice cream cone, three scoops piled high, giggling. Ice cream in messy streaks all over her face. She found the bathroom, I assume.
“Who are you?” the nun asks in Polish. At least I suppose she does. I don’t know Polish, so I take a gamble in French: “I’m Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, from Göteborg.” She laughs and laughs: “Rabbi?!?” She calls the other nuns over, and they all clamor around us, doubling over in laughter.. I furrow my brow, bemused. “What are you doing here?” they wonder. Well, my mother was in Auschwitz, so we came to…
The laughter kicks up a notch, uproarious. They strike up a dance. “His mother was in Auschwitz! Come in, come in!”
“My family’s in the car…”
Once in the kitchen, I learn that I have just spoken with the Mother Superior. These are Carmelite nuns. They used to live in Auschwitz proper, on the land where the camp was built. The Catholic Church had recently converted those troubled grounds into a private sanctuary, but this left the Jewish world horribly up in arms: “Don’t claim our mass graveyard for your holy site.” This was 1993. First some developers announced plans to build a supermarket over the ruins of Birkenau, and Jews were mortified and livid. So instead of commercial real estate, a monastery was built, stamped by the President of Poland. The Jews were still outraged. They descended upon Poland from around the world to picket and protest. A planeful came from Montreal. Rabbi Avi Weiss was the most famous of the protesters. Ultimately Pope John Paul II acquiesced, commanding the nuns in a letter: “By the will of the church you are to move now to a different site in Oswiecim,” using the Polish name for Auschwitz.
So the nuns tease me: “We never met a rabbi we could actually talk with. We just threw cold water from a window down onto Rabbi Weiss.” I tell them: “I’m of the opposite view. I believe that every religion should build a sanctuary on the grounds of Auschwitz, and we should pray together to G-d for our redemption. This is the new lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea of human race. Send monks from Cambodia.”
The eager nuns reply: “You need to move here and build a sanctuary with us. The world’s religions all shame at our failure to lift the face.” That is to say, much of the Church apparatus was in cahoots with Hitler. And the righteous Catholics who opposed him hadn’t tried sufficiently hard to gum up his ghastly machine.
They insist we stay overnight and continue our dialogue over breakfast. “Please come.” They lead Karen and I to the top floor, while the kids bunk in another bedroom. We find a massive crucifix over the bed, which I remove and slide under the bed. And I say the evening prayers … Shema Yisrael … and in the morning I wake with the dawn … don my tallis and tefillin, gaze out over the green fields … Shema Yisrael …
We go downstairs to find breakfast in action. The nuns are aware and careful for kashrut. Together we discuss the re-elevation of prayer in Auschwitz, this idea of one worship hall for all … and all of a sudden, a man charges bargingly in: “What are you doing here?” Some sort of Grand Monsieur, supercilious and disdainful toward the nuns, hectoring them. “These are Carmelite nuns! They have taken a vow of silence. And you have ruined their perfect silence. There has never been a guest.”
I learned that this very building had been the local SS headquarters. And the bed where we slept was the bed of the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss and his wife, a man of legendary and mind-bending brutality. No one had slept in it since he was hanged in 1947, right here in Auschwitz from a gallows built especially for him. And to think, just up the road is where he tried and failed to kill my future-mother… And now he’s gone, and my mother still alive, and I…
Upon leaving I feel a sadness. The Monsieur had no sense of spiritual audacity, no imagination to see the magic in the circumstances of our visit. Off we go to Birkenau. Very few tourists. The atmosphere is haunted, grisly. But before we left, the nuns had told us a story. The most incredible story, which is why I felt so sad about the clammy clamps of the vows that shackled their outreach…
On his recent trip to Poland, said the nuns, the Pope addressed them: “I pray for you every day in my prayers. You’re always in my thoughts, watch for a sign.” Seven days later, ten chimes after six, there was an extraordinary flash flood that overwhelmed Birkenau. Bones disinterred themselves from the ground. A wild scene. The flood washed over the grounds of the convent. And then, another seven days later, around the same time (well, a few minutes late)—Auschwitz rudely closed its gates before us, and Tamira led us to the convent’s front stoop. That’s why the nuns were at first suspicious, then riotously gleeful.
At the tour of Birkenau, we learn about “Canada.” It was a room of lockers where the SS stored the valuables they pilfered from the prisoners’ suitcases. The guards must have viewed Canada as a bounteous place, some kind of El Dorado, and the name stuck. Despite the looting, plenty of goods did slip through the guards’ talons.
The kids have run off. We spy Dvir horsing around with his three older sisters, jumping back and forth over the buried barbed wire that marks the camp’s boundaries. When the camp was in effect, the wire was electrified and shaped into a fence. My mother would tell us how the inmates avoided the edges of the camp because the “Musselmen” (the most miserable and emaciated of inmates) would crawl over to those edges to end their experience of Auschwitz. They would lie beside the fence saying kaddish for each other. Then they would touch the electrified wire and die. And here’s my two-year-old son, fifty years later, 1995, leaping again and again over the defanged wire.
Hitler’s name—yemach shemo—once made every Jew physically flinch and cower. In this moment, here, to me, he’s a laughingstock. The way Haman is mocked on Purim. I say a prayer of thanks to the Almighty, that Hitler has been buried by the joy of a two-year-old boy, and my heart emptied of its dread for that name.