I realised while reading this memoir that I shy away from reading fictional narratives of the Holocaust. It’s not a decision I ever consciously made. I remember the discomfort I felt reading Sophie’s Choice, some underlying sense that Styron’s imagination was inadequate to reach what he was straining to describe. Martin Amis articulates this misgiving brilliantly in his afterword to The Zone of Interest when he tells us how difficult it had always been for him to gain entrance into the Holocaust, to secure any kind of understanding of its “wild fantastic disgrace, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip”, until he stumbled upon an interview with Primo Levi in which Levi said the actions of the Nazis should always remain beyond comprehension because the act of comprehension is, in some way, to find justification. Early on in this memoir there’s an observation of searing insight which no novelist would have been able to imagine. We all know the scene – the cattle truck arrives at the concentration camp, the door is unbolted and there is a flood of blinding light, dogs straining on leashes and SS guards barking invective. The novelist will describe it in terms of clichéd terror. He’ll do his best to make us recoil in horror. Not so, Louis Gros. “We could hear the SS shouting, which was a good sign. The sound of robust and healthy people was stimulating. We had had enough of the moaning and the overpowering stench of bodies, of faeces, of urine. At last we saw some normal people, and above all the chance to be able to breathe deeply again.” That one description gives us a real insight into how the inhumane treatment these people have already been subjected to alters core expectation. These people have already been humiliated into a kind of insane acquiescence.
Louis Gros reveals himself to be a lovely and admirable man. Among other things he went on to fly airplanes and make violins despite all the health problems he suffered in later life as a result of his incarceration at Buchenwald. He was seventeen when he was arrested for distributing anti-nazi leaflets. His father, held responsible for his son’s actions as a minor, was also arrested. He provides an eloquent and insightful and moving and even sometimes humorous account of what he went through on a daily basis. The devil is very much in the detail and it’s Gros’ attention to detail that makes this book such an important and eye opening indictment of the monumental insanity of the Holocaust. There was no gas chamber at Buchenwald. Random killing though was a daily occurrence. You could be shot in the back just walking from one part of the camp to another by a drunken or irritable SS officer. “When you saw the fire, you imagined you were thirsty. Huge waves of sticky smoke rolled angrily down on us, carrying the unbearable smell of burning flesh. I started choking, longing for a drink. But we were not allowed to drink, and we were not allowed to cough.” He always stresses that these SS officers were ordinary men, made into monsters by media propaganda and the inducement of a mob mentality amongst an entire population. Louis Gros isn’t convinced something similar couldn’t happen again and remains disconcerted by “the capacity men have to hate their fellow man.” I was reminded of a passage in the The Street Sweeper when a mob was baying to lynch a 16 year old black girl whose “crime” was to enrol herself at a school previously exclusive to whites.
Lastly, thank you Louis Gros for sharing your memories.