By April the grass was gone
Mauthausen through the eyes of my father, Heinz Feigenbaum (1921-2009)
By Ruth Feigenbaum
Starting from a very young age I asked my father about the number on his arm. My father responded that it helped him to remember his phone number. Of course it did not take long before I knew this was untrue. I wanted to know the truth. I wanted to be able to really understand his past and I was cross with him when he gave some simple answers like: "do you really want to know how bad it was, well it really was," or, "haven't you read Primo Levi?".
My father and mother, both Jewish, always talked about their wars. My mother about her time as a courier in the resistance and my father about his camps. Every moment of our lives referred to that time, but we got only their headlines and preferably the stories to laugh about. Like my grandfather's outcry by arrival on the Rampe in Auschwitz when his hat was swept off his head, just minutes before they sent him through the chimney, as a friend told my father, who arrived three days later: "Wenn ich meine Borsalino nicht mehr habe, kann mir ganz Auschwitz gestohlen werden" (all of Auschwitz can be stolen without my Borsalino). Or the joke about a swap. My grandfather was diagnosed with diabetes, after which he hung up an ad at the door of the hospital in Westerbork, the Dutch Durchgangslager, where my grandfather was the doorman until the family was sent to the death camps: Who would like to trade 10 % blood sugar for two kilograms of coffee?
I wanted to really understand. I kept asking, especially my father what it had been like and he would tell his stories, which in the end I knew by heart. I even started to tune out when he told the same stories, over and over, but still I could never grasp the enormity of it all, to feel with him how it had been.
I read everything I could lay my hands on; testimonies, novels, history books, everything and I became a specialist in trauma treatment of Second World War victims and their children, the second generation. I was the first in The Netherlands to publish about the second generation. I was even very successful in treating older men after retirement, who had problems for the first time in their lives, with their Second World War past. But nothing, not even my work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist treating victims from WW II, had prepared me for a phone call from my grown up daughter right after my last patient on a winter's day in the beginning of 2007: "Mom, have you heard from Opa? He was on my answering machine and something is very wrong, you have to go see him, right away."
My father, Heinz Feigenbaum, age 17, fled from Vienna to the Netherlands right after the Anschluss. His father was traveling back from a business trip and called home from Switzerland. My father, had been standing on Heldenplatz and had heard Hitler's speech from the balcony of the Hofburg. He advised him not to come home. My grandfather was not allowed to stay in Switzerland and ended up in the Netherlands where first my father and a few weeks later my grandmother joined him. They were not allowed to take as much as one "Goldstück".
Their flight did not spare them from deportation. From the 29th of January 1942 until the 4th of September 1944 they were imprisoned in the Netherlands before they were ordered on a train to the death camps. My grandfather as well as my father's first wife, 9 months pregnant, were murdered in Auschwitz. My grandmother was liberated in Theresienstadt and my father survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen, Gross Rosen, Amstetten and finally ended up in Mauthausen again where he barely survived as a Muselmann.
My father went back to Mauthausen twice after the war. The first time he visited Mauthausen, I was eight years old and we, my sister and I, stayed behind. He went by car with my mother and it scared the hell out of me since Mauthausen was nothing but a killing place. It seemed that my father made a row when he had to pay an entrance fee, and finally was admitted for free when they understood that he was a former survivor. Later we were also told that my mother had swept the party hats from the heads of the other visitors who were noisy, laughing and mocking it all. My father, being in his forties, survived that trip very well. My mother went to bed with a nervous breakdown and suicidal wishes for 3 months afterwards.
The second time my father visited Mauthausen was at the unveiling of the Dutch monument May 9, 1986. He had wanted me to come with him, but I had grown up with Camp stories all my childhood days and I did not want, could not bring myself to go, to listen once again to all my fathers stories. Of course, looking back now I would have chosen differently.
My father did not go by car or fly, preferably first class, as he normally would have done for his work in the European Union. No, he joined a Dutch group that went by bus, because he thought he would meet other alte Eingesassene, other Mauthausen survivors. For that occasion he would probably have taken anything but he was the only survivor in the Dutch group, the ultimate survivor, the "guide", someone to whom you could ask all kind of questions, since all the others were family of survivors. In Mauthausen, generally, you died within eight days, my father survived from mid January ‘45 till the 5th of May, the day the camp was liberated. There were almost no Mauthausen survivors in the Netherlands or elsewhere.
He was interviewed together with Simon Wiesenthal, whom he knew since they had been together in Mauthausen. When a journalist asked them, what they ate. Wiesenthal told them that they ate grass in April '45. My father must have responded; "no Sjimme, you are mistaken, by April the grass was gone". I used that line as a title for the novel1 published in 1999.
In 1986, my father was already 65 years old, 26 years older then during his first visit to Mauthausen after the war. In the years gone by he had become more and more of a survivor, although he gave the impression of being very strong. The fact that he had survived and others had not, weighed every year heavier on him. No one in the group, in the bus and later in the camp, realized the burden on him, the difficulty of this visit, of being in a group that used him as a superguide-survivor in the place that before had almost killed him. Nobody realized in the meantime the fragile balance in this seemingly strong survivor.
At the end of the trip, back in the Netherlands, everybody but my father stepped out of the bus, he dawdled. When he finally could bring himself to step down, he asked me right away if I would bring him to the Jewish psychiatric ward in the Netherlands, the Sinaï Centre. He knew he was totally confused. Since he had been going own the stairs into the Grube he had started to fall apart. He had returned to his dark past and he started to scribble all kind of messages for us on little pieces of paper, which were tucked everywhere in his pockets and clothes. He was sure he would not survive this time and became very scared and psychotic.
For a few days his heart kept racing and his nose dripped together with his tears when he told us endless, terrible, incredible stories until one day my father was his composed old self again. From that time onwards I never asked again to really tell me about it. I understood that my father was unable to stay sane and really share what it had been like in Mauthausen, but still it did not warn me for times to come, for that day in 2007.
My answering machine, like my daughter's, was full of messages. My father telling me to come to his place right away, but not to come into the apartment if the door had been forced and run for it and to bring the children to safety. In the car I already called a doctor who told me to call back if necessary only after I had seen my father.
His apartment was dark and I let myself in with my own key. My father was standing in the middle of his living room, and as soon as he saw me, he put one finger to his lips as to warn me to keep silent. The only lights in his place came from the outside world that was holding it's breath. He was in his blue winter coat and at his feet was a small bag. When I walked over to switch on the lights he gestured not to do that, to keep silent, to keep a low profile, not to let anyone know we were there. He did not speak, but it was totally clear what he meant. He was angry and scared when I put on the lights and started to talk.
It was the beginning of a nightmare that was going to last for more than 2 years, almost till the end of his life at 88.
Those two years, most of the time, my father was back in Mauthausen and I understood, more than I had ever wished for. The sight of my father in bed with his back towards us, making strange movements with his body as to avoid caning, is an image I will never forget. My father would try to convince me not to take him to the hospital to see his cardiologist. He would say things like: "When I go outside they will remove my clothes and hose me down again and again and it is minus 8. I will not survive, I will freeze to death." And another time: "They will not let me in again, they will let me stand outside, in the snow. My place will be taken by someone else, we have to keep the place." Or on a warm summer's day: "Don't open the window, they might come through the window, they might hear us," when his room was soaring hot and smelly.
My father, the hero of my youth, a gentleman, who had survived the most incredible past, could be so afraid that he would not even dare to go to the bathroom or he would run around, stark naked in the corridor, trying to escape his torturers. Only after I could convince my father to try electro shock therapy when all other treatments had failed, did he become sane again and able to enjoy the first rays of sun on his face in early spring. However, he had become so fragile that the first pneumonia of that autumn killed him.
So in the end I got more than I ever wanted. I do understand. I am able to empathize and through the eyes of my father I have seen the horrors of this place called Mauthausen.
© Ruth Feigenbaum, The Hague, the Netherlands, June 2020
1 By april was het gras op, Amsterdam, 1999, Podium. German and English translations are in preparation.