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Miriam O'Callaghan: 'Auschwitz wasn't built on the hate of a few... but on the indifference of many'

Miriam O'Callaghan

Tomorrow's International Holocaust Remembrance Day will remind us of the brutality we are capable of, says Miriam O'Callaghan


SURVIVORS OF HELL ON EARTH: Miriam Ziegler, Paula Lebovics, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor pose five years ago with the original image of them as children taken at Auschwitz at the time of its liberation. Eva Kor died last year, aged 85

SURVIVORS OF HELL ON EARTH: Miriam Ziegler, Paula Lebovics, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor pose five years ago with the original image of them as children taken at Auschwitz at the time of its liberation. Eva Kor died last year, aged 85

SURVIVORS OF HELL ON EARTH: Miriam Ziegler, Paula Lebovics, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor pose five years ago with the original image of them as children taken at Auschwitz at the time of its liberation. Eva Kor died last year, aged 85

I didn't realise that my mother was a psychopath until I became a mother myself... I'm kidding, of course, and we laugh about it. In our gallows way.

It's just when I looked at my five-year-old, blue dinosaur in hand, red Thomas the Tank Engine slippers on his feet and wondered 'is it time now for the chat about the Holocaust?' the answer was 'No'.

I'd reared a Senior Infants softie, too mushy to learn about ghettoes, transports, gas chambers, the words jackboot, Gestapo, Juden Raus.

To her credit, my mother never spared us European history. You can't blame her. In 1968, when she introduced the "Concentration Camps" to her five-year-old, World War II was only 23 years over, the Hungarian Uprising virtually last week, the Czech Spring in the news.

So, from a raw age, I knew about Imre Nagy's radio address to the world, the rolling Russian tanks, the fate of Alexander Dubcek, the building of the Berlin Wall, the arrival of the Iron Curtain, whose action I imagined more as the pull of a heavy blind, than the sweep of a drape. And, of course, the names Dachau, Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz without-the-Birkenau.

Since all news and many stories came from the radiogram next to the fireplace, Cork's being right there in gold block-lettering along with Prague and Budapest, meant you could never be too careful about Europe.

No surprise then, that while other children were tormented by thoughts of the End of the World and the Souls in Purgatory, I was more preoccupied by round-ups, cattle-carts, railways and Selections. To which line would my mother, father and aunt be assigned?

In my childish mind there was no question about my grandmother: being elderly, she would be gassed immediately, if she ever made it off the train.

"We must never forget," my mother used to say.

"As if we had the chance," might be the rejoinder.

Traditionally, Cork had a thriving Jewish community: the Marcuses of artistic renown, the Rosehills with their music shop, Gerald Goldberg, eminent solicitor and Lord Mayor. Everyone knew Jewtown, the Synagogue in South Terrace. Cork gave the anti-Semite Oliver Flanagan his answer. There'd be no 'running out', or for me as a child, no jackboot of the Gestapo. At home by the Lee, Judaism was safe, local, our own. Pure Cork like.

It was as a young adult, discovering Primo Levi, travelling around Europe, finding myself in heaving railway stations, with their babel of languages, I started to feel uneasy again. After my children were born, the unease became discomfort: suddenly it was way too easy to imagine Jewish parents with babies and toddlers in their arms, school-goers by the hand, teenagers beside them.

At the time, I put it down to an atypical, residual, post-natal depression. But it's persisted, slightly, even to today. Since I'm trying not to take planes and to see continental-based family and friends now by bus, ferry and rail, I travel pretty regularly where French and Italian Jews were arrested, detained, transported. Each location retains a powerful sense of these men, women, children, more as absence than presence.

By chance, the grandfather of a one-time girlfriend of my son drove some of those transports 'East' as he was ordered. She told him the night they met: on the train to Auschwitz for the annual commemoration.

The 2020 International Holocaust Remembrance Day is tomorrow. At Auschwitz the names will be recited of the people - a People - exterminated: neighbours, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, tailors, toddlers, violinists, mothers, composers, new babies, older babies, communists, daughters, writers, fathers, doctors, wives, furriers, sons, singers, dressmakers, husbands, street sweepers, artists, sisters, shopkeepers, brothers, lawyers, bankers, waiters, grandchildren, bad boys, wide boys, good boys, confectioners, aunties, shoemakers, uncles, acrobats, teachers, hatmakers, cousins, concert pianists, cabaret pianists, conductors, best-pals, school-pals, cleaners, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, in-laws, labourers, Rabbis, Cantors, ex-Legionnaires.

According to Primo Levi, almost all the Italians in his Auschwitz transport died within a fortnight of arrival. Not understanding the orders barked by the SS in their coarse German, meant Disobedience. Disobedience meant savage beating. Savage beating meant Death, because lying down was a Capital Offence.

Linguistically, the Italians were doubly (and therefore existentially) disadvantaged: they didn't know Yiddish either. "If you do not speak Yiddish, you are not a Jew," a fellow inmate told Levi.

"We Italian Jews, felt particularly vulnerable," wrote Levi. "With the Greeks, we were the lowest of the low."

In Rome, the lowest and poorest Jews lived in the ghetto at Portico d'Ottavia, Last Summer, on the cobbles outside the rickety, now-expensive apartment buildings, I read the series of brass Stumble Stones dedicated to Auschwitz deportees, families in several generations. Each plaque cites the name of the person, date of their birth, arrest, assassination.

Sitting in the ghetto square with my daughter, where Jewish mothers would have sat with theirs (perhaps other Annas, other Miriams) we imagine the scenes, the sounds of the raid on October 16, 1943.

It is Saturday morning, Shabbat, and packed into these ancient, ramshackle, rain-damaged buildings, the ghetto's families are asleep. Shortly before 5.30am, 365 SS men seal off the ghetto, go building to building, step by step, landing to landing, door to door, in a meticulous "hunt" for Jews. They have exquisite detail of every household, every tenant. Not a door, a family is missed.

This action is replicated, simultaneously, in neighbourhoods across Rome. As the SS bang on the ghetto doors, the newly-woken residents believe it's the men they want.

In the dark, the women help husbands, lovers, brothers, sons, sons-in-law out windows, across balconies and terraces, to escape over roofs to side-streets beyond the cordon. According to the academic Anna Foa, most of the ghetto's men get away, many finding refuge in local churches, convents. One roof-skimmer Atillio di Veroli goes pelting to the church of San Benedetto where the priest tells him, "Come. We've been instructed to take you in."

Over nine hours, the SS remove 689 women, 363 men, 207 children. They herd them onto 18 vehicles, hold them at the military college - 1,023 are categorised as Jew, the remainder released. In two days, from newborn to the aged, the 1,023 Jews are transported by sealed train from Tiburtina station, direct to Auschwitz. Only 16 will return: 15 men, one woman, no children.

That day on the hot square, heavily guarded, we hear the stories. Of babies, children passed to non-Jews, either hidden by them immediately or smuggled to safe-houses, convents and churches.

Of a family leaving everything, walking past the cordon and chaos, as if they are non-Jews with an appointment to keep. Of 12-year-old Emanuele di Porto, who, seeing his mother loaded onto a truck rushes to be with her. She shoves him away, telling the German guard that Emanuele is neither her son, nor a Jew. Thrown from the truck, he races for the tram where for three days and nights, conductors and drivers protect him in audacious acts of heroism.

Word of the raids spreads across Rome. They say by Saturday evening, every passenger on a tram in Rome is a Jew fleeing for their life.

Tomorrow, I will remember the Jews of Rome, especially the mother of Emanuele di Porto. I will remember, too, Dora Bruder, the Parisian teenager hidden by her parents at The Holy Heart of Mary, a Catholic boarding school for poor girls. Until one Sunday evening in December 1941, she vanishes.

That New Year's Eve an ad appears in Paris Soir for information on her whereabouts. A high-risk move for her parents since Ernest Bruder, a Viennese migrant, had defied the order to register his French daughter as a Jew.

In 1988, the Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano (whose father also defied the order to register) finds the notice, begins work on The Search Warrant, a meditation on what became of the 15-year-old Jewess "height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes" during that winter of snow, curfews, reprisals, informants.

I've read the book so often that its pages are loose.

On September 18, 1942, Dora Bruder and her father Ernest, he listed by police as "unskilled worker" and "ex-Legionnaire" were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz on Transport 34. Her mother Cecile, listed as "salaried garment worker" and "furrier's seamstress" followed them on February 11, 1943. None survived.

On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day we remember that what ended in Auschwitz and the fields of Eastern Europe, started in homes, streets, factories, schools, offices, shops, ordinary neighbourhoods. Too often, it was not the hate of the few that dehumanised, destroyed the Jews. Rather, it was the indifference of the many.

Sunday Independent