If it’s the end of January, then International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day that recognizes hatred, must be here. Having been marinated in this subject matter for 20 plus years, you’d think it would get easier to think about. It doesn’t. The opposite is true. This year my thoughts turn to one of the subjects featured in my recently reissued nonfiction Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, Europe 1939-1945, Joseph Bau, a brilliant, satirical graphic artist, also a poet, who, along with his wife Rebecca (whom he married secretly while they were prisoners in a concentration camp) walked through the eye of the needle of death and survived against all odds. After the war, Joseph and Rebecca emigrated to Israel where they procreated two daughters – Haddasa and Tslila – who are keeping the memory of their parents and their father’s artwork alive around the world. Following, the piece that resulted from my interview with Joseph:
Joseph Bau’s mother, Tzilah Bau, originally from Krakow, Poland, died – “was murdered” is how Joseph refers to her death – in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His father, Abraham, was murdered in Plaszow concentration camp, and his brother Iziu (Ignacy) was murdered in the Krakow ghetto. Joseph’s own survival, the mysterious coincidences that kept him and his brother Marcel alive in Plaszow, Joseph’s clandestine marriage while a prisoner at Plaszow and the reunion with his wife after their separation defied all the odds. Or, as Bau himself explains so much good fortune, “defied the laws of nature.” The word he uses liberally to describe these events is one that’s usually used as a sign of divine intervention in human affairs, the repeated word he chooses – “miracle.”
In 1971, Joseph Bau and his wife, Rebecca, reluctantly returned to Europe – to Austria – from Israel, where they’d lived since war’s end. In Israel, Bau had become a renowned artist, an animator, and also an author. After I contacted him, we conducted our interview by e-mail. He was eager to discuss his life. But one day his children e-mailed me to say their father was ill and in the hospital. Fortunately; whatever else I needed to know could be found in his book of writing and sardonic drawings, Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry?
Because Joseph had been a witness to many brutal murders committed by an SS officer named Franz Gruen – including the murder of his own father – at Plaszow, he was invited to act as a witness by the Austrian government at Gruen’s trial. Gruen was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison, and, as Joseph later explained, the effect of seeing Gruen, of returning to a German-speaking country in Europe, of recounting the bitter facts of his father’s murder, caused his eyesight to blur, his mind to hallucinate scenes from the gruesome past, his blood pressure to shoot up so high he ended up in a Viennese hospital for an entire month. Except for several visits by his old friend and benefactor Oskar Schindler, it seemed to Bau from the Austrian hospital bed that he had fallen into – in his words – “a pit full of scorpions and snakes.” He didn’t feel safe until he returned to Israel.
But even in Israel, regardless of the many decades that passed after the war, images of persecution, privation, brutality remained vividly alive in his memory. For instance, one Saturday evening, as Joseph and his wife and children sat at the dinner table after a fine meal, these images came to haunt him. The table had been set with a good tablecloth. The room was lit by candles. Rebecca had just cut and distributed slices of cake, topped with icing and powdered sugar that she herself had baked. Music was playing on the radio in the background. Joseph remembers watching his wife. He remembers the mouthful of delicious cake sticking in his throat. “Suddenly; I saw her in the striped dress, with a white kerchief on her shaven head, looking at me with sad, hollow eyes. The light dimmed, and emaciated shadows dressed in prison uniforms surrounded me again. The chill wind brought the sound of shooting in the distance, and my nostrils breathed in the smell of burning flesh.” Bau spit out the cake, which to him tasted like stone. Although part of him returned to reality – he could hear the music on the radio, see his children eating the delicious cake – another part of him remained, and will forever remain, in the concentration camp that dwells inside.
First miracle: In the second winter of the war, in Krakow, the streets were frozen with sleet, and a nasty Siberian wind blew snow and ice against buildings, trees and lamp poles. At the time, Joseph and his brother Marcel had badly forged papers; they’d been denied the yellow identity cards, Kennkarten, that the police had issued certain Jews but not others. Thus they were constantly in danger of deportation and so slept in the home of a Christian, a chimney sweep, at night. They could not go to their own bed in daytime, and were forced to stay outdoors. This was excruciating because the weather was terribly cold. Their younger brother, Iziu, age ten, was sometimes able to bring them a pot of their mother’s hot soup. But sometimes he couldn’t make it, and Joseph and Marcel had nothing to eat.
One very dark night, Joseph and Marcel were making their way back to their rented couch in time for the curfew. As they approached the bridge, someone warned them that an SS officer was blocking that bridge and shooting at any Jew who tried to cross. Joseph and Marcel ran in another direction into a strange neighborhood. Just then, all the lights in the town went out due to a power outage. Disoriented, they wandered through dark streets. They kept walking and realized they had drifted away from the town and were walking in mud through a field. They could hear the sound of a flowing river; it was so dark that they could see nothing before them but looming shapes. They groped their way in another direction and found themselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood, had no idea where they were. They were freezing now, lost and exhausted. Seeing candles burning in the window of a house, they remembered that it was the first night of Hanukkah. Something made them walk toward this flickering candlelight. When they got almost to the door of the house, they realized that they’d walked right to the door of the chimney sweep. They entered and the chimney sweep explained the power failure and told them he’d lit candles in the front room for them.
In Joseph’s words: “To this day, I’m unable to explain how we managed to reach that house in the gloomy night, how we crossed the river and the air base without being aware of it.” Even when he examined the town after the war, he could not unravel the route taken. He concludes: “The mystery can only be explained as our private Hanukkah miracle.”
Eventually Marcel and Joseph went to the Krakow ghetto with their family, but then were sent to the Plaszow work camp. At Plaszow, night and day, the white smoke of those who had died that day rose from the crematorium and the stink of burning human remains filled the air. Joseph describes that grim sight: “The departed in the form of white smoke, rose easily upward, waved their hands in parting and viewed with pity all those who remained behind. Then they danced gaily in celebration of their new freedom, before disintegrating in the air.”
Because of his drawing skills, Joseph was given the job of drawing plans and signs or anything else that needed to be designed or painted. His mother worked outside the camp every day. Marcel was sent to the Jewish cemetery, where he was ordered to smash headstones with a sledgehammer. The pieces of this sacred stone would be used for paving roads, One morning Marcel confided to Joseph that he’d found a priceless gold cup in the cemetery and had hidden it. “It’s worth a fortune!” Marcel told him. Joseph looked at the tarnished but obviously pure gold cup and was alarmed. He urged his brother to get rid of it. And quickly
That night, he and Marcel were planning to visit their mother, hoping, since she worked on the outside of the camp and could often scrounge up extra food to bring home for her sons, that she’d bring some with her, After Joseph had begun his day’s work of painting, writing slogans, he heard in the distance the sound of sledgehammers. Among them would be his brother Marcel. Late that afternoon Joseph heard that a hanging was going to occur that night. When he inquired as to who would be hanged and why, he was told that someone had been caught with stolen gold. The rumor was that the person who would be hanged had a short name that began with the letter B. Joseph didn’t need to hear any more – he wept, knowing that they’d caught Marcel.
As he walked toward his mother’s barrack, he could almost hear the sound of Kaddish in the sound of the blowing wind. He found his mother back in the barrack. She told him she had a great surprise. To go with their ration of bread and margarine, she had a boiled egg and a slice of onion to share among the three of them. Ashamed, unable to tell his mother the truth, he pretended to have a headache and left the barrack. Joseph was walking aimlessly when Marcel appeared from nowhere and announced that he’d sold the gold on the black market. “I watched him with wonder and joy,” was how Joseph described the emotion he felt. Eventually, he discovered that the hanged boy was named Beim. The Germans had found a gold watch in Beim’s pocket.
Second miracle: Joseph first met the woman who would be come his wife – who wore the usual striped uniform of a prisoner, her shaved head covered by a white kerchief – while he stood outside an office in Plaszow. He was drafting a map. He of course had no way of knowing then that they’d live together for fifty-three years until her death in 1997. or that he would outlive her. Although men and women had been executed if they were caught making love or even holding hands, Joseph found a few wildflowers and hid them in his cap. He went to look for the woman he’d seen whose name he had been told was Rebecca. He met her in the soup line and began a courtship. To locate each other, they whistled a short tune that became their trademark. Joseph acquired a white kerchief and-as did women prisoners-wore it over his shaved head in order to pass as a woman. Joseph and Rebecca kissed for the first time behind the latrine as the moon shone down. They decided that they wanted to marry each other. But how could this be done in such a place?
It took four black-market loaves of bread made with brown flour and sawdust to buy one spoon that was made of good silver. And it took four more loaves of this same bread as a bribe to a prisoner who had been a jeweler to make two wedding rings out of the acquired silver spoon. On a chosen evening, Joseph and Rebecca met beside his mother’s three-tier bunk. Despite the fact that they couldn’t find a rabbi to do the service, they crafted a makeshift wedding. “HarI at …” concluded Joseph. Joseph’s mother gave her blessings. In their eyes, and – they hoped – in the eyes of God, they were man and wife. They decided to share her bed that night, which was a dangerous act indeed but worth the risk.
But just as they’d climbed up to the top bunk and were becoming acquainted with each other at close, intimate quarters, news that the Germans were going to conduct a search of the women’s barracks was broadcast over the loudspeaker. The several women who slept next to Rebecca spread Joseph with filthy rags and laid their heads on him as though he were a pillow. He wasn’t detected during the search, but almost immediately after it was concluded, the siren signaled an unscheduled count of male prisoners. This meant that all men were to go quickly to the assembly grounds to be counted. Absence or lateness meant death. Adjusting the white kerchief back onto his head, Joseph jumped down from the three-tier bunk and ran toward the men’s camp as the floodlights swept pools of light back and forth across the grounds. He reached the fence that divided the men’s and women’s sections only to discover that the usually open gate of the high fence had been closed and electrified. If he touched it, he would die from bolts of electricity If he didn’t quickly reach the assembly point, he’d die in some other way He decided to try to make an impossible leap. Still amazed more than fifty years later, Joseph says of his leap, “I rose, unwittingly, so high that only my fingers and toes grazed the strands with the lethal current. To this day, I cannot understand how I managed to cheat that mad trap, the dragon that spit fire and swallowed even the bravest heroes. By rights, I should have found my death then and there!”
But soon Joseph was marked for death again. Plans were afoot to transfer Joseph and many other prisoners from Plaszow, which was in the process of being shut down, to an even more lethal concentration camp named Gross-Rosen. At the time, Rebecca had become manicurist for an infamously sadistic Nazi, Amon Goeth, who kept a loaded gun beside the manicure table. If Rebecca’s manicure scissors slipped and cut him, she was told, he would shoot her. During her visits to Goeth’s house, she became acquainted with his secretary, who was a Jewish prisoner named Mietek Pemper who had come to Plaszow with his mother. Because Rebecca had successfully intervened when Pemper’s mother was about to be shot – and saved her life – to return the favor, Pemper offered to add Rebecca’s name to the list he was presently assembling of Jews who would be sent to work in a factory in Czechoslovakia, The owner of the factory was named Oskar Schindler. When the moment came to add her name to the list that would one day become known as “Schindler’s List,” Rebecca wrote down Joseph Bau’s name and not her own. So when the bitter day of parting came, Joseph was transferred and went to work in Schindler’s factory in Czechoslovakia, where he was protected and fed by Oskar and Emilie Schindler at Brinnlitz. Rebecca remained at Plaszow but was soon sent to Auschwitz, where she survived three selections to the gas chamber. She was later taken to Lichtwerden in Czechoslovakia. Her substitution of his name for hers was never mentioned after the war to anyone, not even to her husband. Forty years later, Joseph finally learned the truth when Rebecca revealed it in the making of the film Schindler’s List.
Neither could have imagined ever seeing the other again, on the terrible day of their separation. Joseph had left his “dear and sacred love” a poem that includes the lines
Though our life together was so short,
I must leave now,
sad and forlorn, I am going
To a fate ordained by these desperate times,
By a road unmarked by any signs,
To a mocking destiny
All set to welcome me.
Despite the protection he was given by the Schindlers, Joseph weighed sixty-six pounds when the Russian army liberated Brinnlitz. Almost immediately, along with a small group of survivors, he began the arduous task of trying to get back home. He hoped that if his wife or any of his family had survived, they’d go home too. He jumped freight trains, crossed borders on foot, he somehow made his way to the street in Krakow to the house where his family had lived. Though he found their apartment occupied by a knife-wielding man, he was elated to be home. He found lodging elsewhere and began visiting the Jewish Committee office, which daily posted lists of living and dead. Here Joseph discovered that his mother, once a respected couturier who had owned her own boutique specializing in hats, had died in Germany in Bergen-Belsen. He learned that though she had managed to hang on to life, she had died shortly after the camp was liberated by the British. Eventually, he discovered that Marcel had survived in Germany and so had Rebecca. Although Rebecca had finished the war in Lichtwerden, she had been in an accident in the small city of Freudenthal. She and several women were in a wagon being taken somewhere when the wagon overturned. All the women were injured and had been put in a hospital there. But how to get to Freudenthal? First he had to find a way to be issued a travel permit.
Miracle upon miracle: Joseph wrangled a travel permit. Desperate to get to Rebecca, he began jumping freight trains again. At the juncture of Morawska Ostrowa, he was instructed by the trainmaster to get on the train to Szwinow and jump off while the train was still moving, and there transfer to Freudenthal. Joseph found his crowded train and squeezed on board. Wanting to be ready to jump, he sat in an open door frame, legs hanging down dangerously outside the moving train. He tried to stay awake but sleep overcame him, and when he woke he discovered he’d missed the spot where he was to leap. He got off the train at the next station to find out that not only had he missed his disembarkation spot, but he’d also missed the connecting train. Amidst great confusion at the train station, Joseph found a train going back in the direction he’d come. He climbed onto the flat roof of the train, and it began its journey. Shortly, however, dark clouds gathered and a storm broke open, pouring hail and heavy rain down on the roof of the train. Soaked, bones aching, he managed to stay alert and got off the train at the transfer point, Szwinow. In a sorry state, shivering, hungry, Joseph waited for a connecting train and climbed aboard. It happened to be a passenger train. He found a normal seat and fell asleep.
Abruptly his deep sleep was interrupted when the train stopped and all the passengers were ordered off the train. Again confusion reigned. His clothing – the prisoner’s striped shirt and trousers from the camp that he still wore – was still wet. He made inquiries and learned, to his amazement, that the reason for the abrupt interruption of his journey was that there had been a recent accident with a train, It seemed that a train packed with passengers had been crossing the river on a bridge when the bridge – damaged in the war – gave way. The train had plunged into the river here in Opava where they were. People were crushed in the fall; others had drowned in the river. Further questioning revealed to Joseph that the train that had been in the accident was none other than the train he’d been trying desperately to catch. Had he not fallen asleep, had he made his connection, he would have been on that train and would most likely have died in the river.
Joseph marveled at this most recent reprieve from death as he waited beside the river through the night, watching as the clouds indifferently scuttled across the face of the moon. Out of the blue, an enraged woman singled him out, accused him – despite his vocal denials and the striped prisoner shirt he still wore – of being a German, a Nazi, a criminal. The police were called in and he was taken to the police station. The situation calmed when Joseph showed his papers to the police. One policeman felt badly when he realized that Joseph was a Jewish survivor. He asked if he could help in any way. Joseph explained about his wife’s injury on the overturned wagon, about his journey in search of his wife, about the trains, the bridge. “You know,” said the policeman, “here in Opava we had a similar accident with a wagon. In fact, there are still several girls in the hospital.”
It seemed an odd coincidence. Although Joseph believed that Rebecca was in Freudenthal, he went to the hospital in Opava with the policeman anyway. All the while, he kept protesting that his wife was in Freudenthal, not Opava. Nonetheless, in the corridor of the hospital he whistled the special notes known only to Rebecca and himself In his own words: “I entered the hospital with the policeman and whistled the tune we’d used to locate each other at the Plaszow camp. No, I cannot find the words to describe that wonderful reunion which defied all the laws of nature. I’ll leave it to you … to imagine what happened on that fateful evening of June 7, 1945.”
[Two drawings by Joseph Bau]