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Authors: Adolfo García Ortega

The Birthday Buyer

BOOK: The Birthday Buyer
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Hispabooks Publishing, S. L.

Madrid, Spain

www.hispabooks.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing by the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Copyright © 2008 by Adolfo García Ortega

Originally published in Spain as
El comprador de aniversarios
by Seix Barral, 2008

First published in English by Hispabooks, 2013

English translation copyright © by Peter Bush

Design and Photography © Simonpates - www.patesy.com

A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-84-941744-5-2 (trade paperback)

ISBN 978-84-941744-6-9 (ebook)

Legal Deposit: M-32003-2013

Digital setting: Newcomlab, S.L.L.

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nacht wir trinken dich

mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
.

[Black milk of dawn we drink you at night we drink you at noon

Death is a Master in Germany.]

PAUL CELAN

I
THE TOOTH PULLERS
1

Auschwitz is too close.

If Hurbinek, for example, had survived, he would be fifty-nine. He really wouldn’t be that old, and he might have a good memory, a cruelly good memory that would prompt those horrific nightmares so often experienced by people who passed through the camps when they are devoured by hunger, by hunger and yet more hunger. His grandchildren would still be youngsters, at most adolescents who respected him highly. He’d have a good job, suited to his physical condition, in Poland or Hungary or perhaps a Russian city, and it would be early days to hear talk of retirement. No, Auschwitz is still too close. It isn’t as unreal as Trafalgar, the French Revolution or Waterloo often seem in textbooks. There are survivors. Although Hurbinek isn’t one of them.

Hurbinek. Who would Hurbinek be today if he had survived?

Well, of course, I could be incredibly abstract and miss out Auschwitz, its Nazi horrors, the crematoria, the gas chambers, the cattle trucks arriving on snow-swept nights, the screams and merciless harshness, the planning that went into those factories for the mass production of Jewish corpses and cripples. Much has already been written about that. I’m not even sure I will let myself be tempted by the symbolic status the huge extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau now bears as a pivotal point in history, or by what Adorno said—which wasn’t true—that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz: subsequently many more people have been—and are still being—exterminated and lots of poetry is still being written.

I can choose to be abstract and only speak about Hurbinek.

I only want to speak about him.

Only about him.

Today no one more than he deserves words, and language. And that is because Hurbinek is the most horrendous symbol of silence that History could ever have created.

I want Hurbinek to exist.

To exist once more. To exist for longer. To be an existence that endures.

To lead an invented, possible life. Manufactured by me.

What use is an invented life to him?

Perhaps it is of no use at all to him if someone were to invent his life. Dead at the age of three, he never learned what life was about, though he clung desperately on to the last scrap of minuscule energy his minuscule, paralyzed body could create. But it is of use to me, in no small way, to invent his life. It is the only path to redemption both he and I can take. I am, as it were, giving life to Hurbinek. Yes, that is what I’m doing, come to think of it.

2

I was going to Auschwitz, but not anymore.

I have only faint memories of the following: at 4 p.m. one Saturday afternoon I paid for a full tank at counter 7 in a Shell service station on the A-3 Motorway, then jumped back in my Ford, switched on a Leonard Cohen cassette (“Lover, lover, lover”), read a sign in front that said “Frankfurt-Main/Autobahn A-5” and decided I should leave the A-3 Motorway for the A-5 (the turnoff was very clear, just three hundred feet away), when a truck transporting tires suddenly banged into the back of my car and shot me off the road. I turned over several times and lost consciousness.

They said my car was a write-off. The insurance would see to everything. The truck driver didn’t pass the alcohol test. He was speeding. They said he only dislocated a foot.

I was going to Auschwitz, but not anymore.

On the contrary, I’m in a Frankfurt hospital, the Universitäts-Kliniken, on the Theodor Sternstrasse, opposite the river. I was travelling alone on this trip. Fanny stayed at home with the girls. It was going to be a long, uncomfortable, hardly fun journey. “It may be a pilgrimage, but it’s not tourism. How can one turn Auschwitz into a tourist thing?” I’d say defensively. I couldn’t tell you why, but
I had
to go alone, to feel
alone
there. I now know I won’t make it to Auschwitz, that the final half of my journey has to be postponed to another time, I hope.

The medical report they read me says I have two broken legs, two fractured ribs, severe bruising, a swollen right cheek and occasionally vomit blood they are checking to make sure there isn’t something internal that’s not working properly. When I’m recovered, I’ll take a plane home. I was going to Auschwitz, but not anymore.

3

I didn’t lead Fanny to panic. I don’t want to worry her or the girls. She’s capable of rushing here with the pair of them. After all, these doctors have everything under control. It won’t be long, a couple of weeks at most. I’m sharing a small ward with five other people. It’s not very welcoming. It’s more like a place of transit, a ward that’s been improvised from a mismatch of old furniture. The windows are high up and barred. You can see a strip of sky, and if I sit up in bed I can catch a glimpse of the odd roof and church steeple. My five roommates are all German but seem middle or working-class. It’s no private hospital. That’s clear from the meals they bring up and the sparse selection of objects in the ward, some of which are broken or shabby.

I’ve always dreaded hospitals. They make me feel sick. I know this phobia has a name, that it is a clinical phobia and affects lots of people. It’s panic sparked off by that sweeping sterility where one feels one is lost and drifting, in an echoing void, a place of childish imaginary torture, where metallic sounds unexpectedly reverberate, with that color white that permeates everything, walls, uniforms, bandages, a white where the red blood can suddenly appear even more violently because it is expected, cold, deliberate.

Only Primo Levi has spoken about Hurbinek. He was in a hospital ward, as I am now, except for the drastic difference that his hospital (a name it hardly deserves) was located in a corner of the Main Camp in Auschwitz. “All the same, my attention,” writes Primo Levi in
The Truce
, “and that of my neighbors in the nearby beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence and mortal power of affirmation, of the smallest and most harmless among us: of a child, of Hurbinek.” And a couple of pages later he will add: “Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.”

Silence. Emptiness. And gratitude: mine, and that of thousands like me. If it weren’t for the words that Primo Levi devotes to Hurbinek, the passage through life of that small three-year-old boy, crippled from the waist downward, would have been swallowed up by oblivion. Like so many millions of others. But Hurbinek struggled against oblivion, as his body struggled against death until his strength failed him.

I feel strangely alone in this hospital ward. These young German doctors make me feel anxious when they approach my bed every now and then, listen to my heartbeat, smile for a second and mouth syllables similar to those millions of men, women and children heard in the camps, as they were being exterminated. Of course, I know they are not saying the same things. Or are they? Because the children sent to the hospital so they could experiment every manner of crazy, sadistic madness on their frail, shaking bodies for the greater good of German science under Dr. Mengele would have been spoken to in similar terms to the ones they now use with me: “Lift your arm up,”“Bring your arm down,” “Open your mouth,” “Does that hurt?” “Turn over,” “This is swollen,” “Bandage,” “Cut,” “Open,” “Extract.”

They are the same words used by the tooth pullers who extracted teeth from Jews before they were sent to the gas chambers. With great precision, using their strength, breaking only the mouths of Jews. Besides, the pain would make them forget their fear. Or at least that’s what the tooth pullers thought. I know, the difference is the context in which they are said. Except that in some remote corner of my subconscious contexts become blurred: a state hospital in Frankfurt and an infirmary in Auschwitz, or in Dachau, or in Buchenwald, or in Treblinka, or in Majdanek, or in Sobibor, or in Chelmno. Perhaps what the contexts share in my subconscious, terrifyingly, are the short, guttural, sibilant German words. Uttered unemotionally, clinically, technically, the sounds are identical in my Frankfurt hospital and any of the experimental laboratories run by those Nazi doctors.

The very same words Hurbinek heard at some time in that short life of his without understanding anything at all.

4

I have been wanting to write about Hurbinek for years, though I didn’t realize it was Hurbinek I wanted to write about. I don’t know how old I was when I saw the first photographs, the first images on film of Nazi extermination camps but I must have been a kid. It was shocking. Now I can’t remember if I saw photos my father showed me in a book on the Second World War or if it was a television documentary about the Allies reaching the camps: ghostly, wandering bodies, human skin and bone, wrapped in blankets, looking out lifelessly from the deadly skulls their faces had become. Those pictures made such a deep impression that later on, over the years, I decided I wanted to probe the reasons behind that massacre, that annihilation, to find out who the guilty parties were and who the victims were, to ascertain the historical truth. I wanted to know the
details
. I read eyewitness accounts, I sought out eyewitnesses, I visited some of the scenes. I felt I was Jewish, Russian or any of the victims of persecution, humiliation and elimination, human beings crushed and erased simply because they existed. Murdered because they existed. I felt like a victim, any one of those victims. And of those victims, Hurbinek perhaps was most victim of all.

The heaps were always what most shocked me in what I saw and read at the time. Huge heaps of shoes, buckles, hats, watches, coats, suitcases, beards, teeth and molars. I was horrified to see those piles of thousands upon thousands of molars and teeth, and men separating the ones with gold fillings from the rest. Their handy work, their smiling, conscientious faces and keen focus on what they were doing made them seem to me like monsters: their actions were so everyday, so normal. Then Hannah Arendt coined the exact term to define such an attitude: the banality of evil. When I later decided to write about Hurbinek, I knew I was legitimized by a sense of justice, but I couldn’t find the words. There are words one cannot find simply because they do not and cannot exist.

5

What do we know about Hurbinek? Nothing. We only have the scant information Primo Levi gives us in the second book that he devotes to recording his experience in the Nazi camps.

The war was in its final phase: on January 27, 1945 the first Russian patrol reaches the Buna-Monowitz Lager within the orbit of Auschwitz Birkenau; Primo Levi and other sick people are moved to the Main Camp in Auschwitz; there the Russians have set up a “ward for the infectious,” a ward two or three times bigger than the one where I am now in Frankfurt, that crammed in eight hundred sick people; Primo Levi is feverish and delirious and is moved to a smaller place; there, on one of the bunks, is a three-year-old child they have named Hurbinek, interpreting thus some of the strange sounds he sporadically blurts out; his legs are atrophied and his eyes are his only grasp on life: “they struck the living like darts,” says Levi. “It was a stare both savage and human.”

Perhaps he was Russian or Hungarian; lots of Hungarians came to the camps in those last months, when the Red Army was only a few miles away and they had accelerated the process of gassing and cremating in the ovens.

Perhaps he was Polish and his mother gave birth to him right there in the camp.

Perhaps Auschwitz was his only universe in those long three years.

The atrophy in his legs must have been caused by cold and neglect: no doubt someone tried to eliminate him when he was born and didn’t succeed. His own mother? Quite possibly. Driven by pity she tried to choke him with the threadbare clothes she wore. She couldn’t. Hurbinek resisted. Perhaps she gave him to someone else, who in a rush grabbed his legs like a runt, dislocated them from his hips and dropped him through a hole in the floorboard, out of the barracks into the bad weather. He survived the snow because nobody could silence him. Under the barracks or next to the latrines or wherever it was they chose to leave him to die, nobody managed to stay put long enough to cover his mouth and asphyxiate him. Someone soon picked him up, on the sly. He screamed too much. And he didn’t go back to his mother. He never went back to his mother. Perhaps his mother had already killed herself, or died during his birth, or died on the vast esplanade, during the roll call, exhausted by the blood she lost giving birth, or died as a result of the whim of the
Kapo
who whipped her guts out. The range of possibilities ever broadens . . . From barracks to barracks, from one woman to another, from one man to another, who can say, undernourished and sick, surviving from birth on a mixture of strength and chance that would endure three agonizing years. News of his existence soon reached the ears of the SS: perhaps someone told the barrack’s
Kapo
about the newborn child, another of the many who had survived the abortion or strangulation attempted by his mother or father, the low temperatures, the game the SS liked to play shooting at them spiked on a post of the barbed wire fence as if they were a cloth rabbit at a fairground. No one knows or will ever know when they tattooed a number on his arm.

Perhaps he was Jewish.

6

I repeat: what do we know about Hurbinek? Nothing really. An eloquent, horrible nothing, but it is a nothing in general. What do we know about one another? Nothing. Or everything, because life itself reproduces us and we reproduce life, and in turn we reproduce each other in life, we replicate and imitate each other. We are united by what is most private and separated by what is superficial. We all perform the same way: we won’t know the specific facts (where you were born, where you live, how much you earn, who your parents, grandparents etc. are, what your street, your telephone number, your profession etc. is), but we do know how you will react to pain, anguish, loneliness and fear. And if we don’t know how people react in extreme conditions, how millions perished at the hands of the Nazis, at least we know enough to understand the pain, anguish, loneliness and fear felt by others. We feel compassion; we are human. But are we? Now isn’t Eichmann also perhaps human, the organiser of the extermination, a manufacturer of corpses for bureaucratic purposes, because that is what he is ordered to do and that is what he does as a good German paterfamilias, because it is his role in the machinery of the Third Reich? And isn’t Adolf Hitler perhaps human when he weeps, distraught, when his mother Klara dies, and isn’t that what his doctor, Eduard Bloch, his surgeon, who in forty years in medicine had never seen a man so deeply and painfully affected “in such circumstances” thinks? After forty years in his profession, with thousands of patients dying in his care, was the sorrow of young Adolf Hitler the only sorrow ever to make an impression on Dr. Bloch? And what do I know about Hitler? Nothing. What did Hurbinek know about Hitler? Nothing. What did the millions of human beings Hitler condemned to die know about him? Nothing. What did the people living in Germany know about the dead? Nothing. Or almost nothing. I take another look around: I am in hospital in Frankfurt; they are taking care of me, I don’t want to be unfair. But I am afraid that the grandfather or uncle or great-grandfather of that young, fair-featured doctor who looks at me coldly every day did know mass murder was carried out by Germans, by their children, by their brothers, by their husbands; they knew, in any case, at least, that an anonymous Polish child would be born in a camp that had been expressly built in order to eliminate him, to eradicate him from this world. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine, if they had given it just a little bit of thought. Even if they didn’t know he would be called Hurbinek. And that the memory of him would last more than any memory of the vast majority of themselves.

BOOK: The Birthday Buyer
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