Main gate of Auschwitz, 2011

I con­fess: when I first began research­ing my new book, Lovers in Auschwitz, I under­stood lit­tle about Auschwitz. A cou­ple of decades ago, I watched Schindler’s List, which gave me a rough idea of life in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. Years lat­er, I went to Poland and vis­it­ed the main camp of Auschwitz. I saw the infa­mous steel gate with the Goth­ic-let­tered sign: Arbeit Macht Frei–work will set you free. I saw the latrines, the piles of pil­fered shoes, the ovens. And still, I didn’t real­ly see.

I am the grand­child of four Holo­caust sur­vivors. I can­not remem­ber a time when I didn’t know my grand­par­ents’ sto­ries of sur­vival; their bat­tles and strength are ingrained in me, part of my DNA. Some­times I feel that I know their past so inti­mate­ly that I can visu­al­ize my grand­par­ents, as chil­dren, in Europe. Grow­ing up, I would ask ques­tions and as they remem­bered, I lis­tened, and I imagined.

A teenage boy, peek­ing through the cracked door of the clos­et where his moth­er hid him. The boy watch­ing, as a Nazi pulled his younger sis­ter up by her hair, shot her square on the fore­head, and dropped her – like a rag doll – to the ground.

A girl, age nine, board­ing a ship full of orphans set­ting sail for Tehran, wav­ing good­bye to her grand­par­ents, who would lat­er be gunned down along with the oth­er local Jews, their bod­ies tossed in the town river.

A young sol­dier, return­ing from the front to dis­cov­er a lone, silent piano in an emp­ty apart­ment, his entire fam­i­ly dead.

A girl, age twelve, crouched inside a cel­lar for 630 days, speak­ing in whis­pers, mak­ing a game of catch­ing gnats.

My grand­par­ents lost most of their fam­i­lies to the Holo­caust. Fam­i­ly mem­bers who weren’t killed in front of them sim­ply dis­ap­peared. But none of my grand­par­ents were in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. When I asked them what they knew about the camps, they shud­dered. They were lucky, they said in a low­ered tone, eyes avert­ed. They had one or two close friends with num­bers tat­tooed on their fore­arms; per­haps they sus­pect­ed that their own grand­par­ents had per­ished in those camps. But my grand­par­ents didn’t talk about the hor­rors of the camps — and so I avert­ed my eyes, too.

And then, while research­ing World War II refugees as part of my pro­fes­sion­al life as a jour­nal­ist, I met David Wis­nia. At nine­ty-two, David, a can­tor with a deep tenor, had the hint of a sin­gle-dig­it six still imprint­ed in his fore­arm. At fif­teen, he’d dis­cov­ered his fam­i­ly dead in a pile of bod­ies in the War­saw Ghet­to; by six­teen, he’d land­ed in Auschwitz. When I first met David, he briefly told me about his expe­ri­ences in the camp, first car­ry­ing corpses, and lat­er singing to the Nazis. He told me about escap­ing a death march and join­ing the US military. 

Before I left our meet­ing, he casu­al­ly men­tioned–I had a girl­friend in Auschwitz. He told me her name was Helen Spitzer, but she was known as Zippi.

I knew enough about Auschwitz to under­stand that this did not sound right. When David told me about Zippi’s being a graph­ic design­er in Auschwitz, I was aston­ished. I had much to learn. I read David’s mem­oir, One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Pris­on­er to 101st Air­borne Troop­er. All of a sud­den, those latrines I’d seen so long ago, that steel gate, those piles of shoes – they all began to take new meaning. 

Zip­pi remained an enig­ma. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a graph­ic design­er with­in a killing camp. I picked up a copy of Approach­ing an Auschwitz Sur­vivor: Holo­caust Tes­ti­mo­ny and Its Trans­for­ma­tions edit­ed by Jür­gen Matthäus. The slim vol­ume cap­tured Zippi’s voice through inter­views with five his­to­ri­ans, each chap­ter with its own focus and par­tic­u­lar lens. I real­ized that not only were Zip­pi and her role excep­tion­al, but so much of what occurred in Auschwitz and its sub­camp Birke­nau (where David and Zip­pi were both interned) lay beneath the sur­face of what is com­mon­ly known. Acts of resis­tance took place in fac­to­ries, offices, ware­hous­es, and lit­er­al­ly under­ground. A mod­ern onlook­er could not begin to under­stand that world by just look­ing through the steel gates. 

I went on to read many mem­oirs of sur­vivors of Auschwitz and I emerged aston­ished every time. Susan Cernyak-Spatz, Zippi’s friend and fel­low inmate, wrote Pro­tec­tive Cus­tody Pris­on­er 34042. Born in Vien­na, Susan sur­vived two years in Auschwitz and went on to teach Ger­man lit­er­a­ture at UNC-Char­lotte. Susan described Zippi’s Zeichen­stube, or draft­ing office, where Zip­pi would orga­nize camp sta­tis­tics and employ sick girls to allow them to stay inside and be safe until they recovered. 

Mag­da Hellinger spent some time in this office with Zip­pi. In her mem­oir, The Nazis Knew My Name: A Remark­able Sto­ry of Sur­vival and Courage in Auschwitz-Birke­nau, authored with her daugh­ter Maya Lee, Mag­da described Zip­pi fill­ing in ledgers with pris­on­ers’ details. The bulk of the list was pris­on­ers who were select­ed for death. The worst part of this job was that these reg­is­ters were some­times filled out in advance of a selec­tion, mean­ing Zip­py [sic.] was mak­ing up caus­es of death for peo­ple who had not yet died,” wrote Mag­da. Secret­ly, Zip­pi switched many of these names to dif­fer­ent columns in her ledger, sav­ing count­less lives even as she risked her own. 

Mag­da also spent some of her time work­ing in Birkenau’s noto­ri­ous Block 10, where women and girls under­went grue­some exper­i­ments. She describes excep­tion­al moments of for­ti­tude among the women, such as the makeshift cabarets they put on to lift each other’s spir­its. She also describes how she and Zip­pi helped place Alma Rosé, a well-known Aus­tri­an vio­lin­ist and Jew­ish inmate, as a con­duc­tor of an orches­tra made up of Birke­nau prisoners.

As much as I hadn’t real­ly seen or under­stood Auschwitz before, these mem­oirs began to build a vivid pic­ture of a dark place where light came from the pris­on­ers them­selves. In Edith Eva Eger’s mem­oir, The Choice: Embrace the Pos­si­ble, the author describes being forced to dance for Dr. Josef Men­gele, known as the Angel of Death. To sur­vive, we con­jure an inner world, a haven, even when our eyes are open,” she wrote. 

I saw this again and again, as I read the words of sur­vivors. And I thought of my grand­par­ents, and their so-called luck. With each of my grandparent’s mem­o­ries, I caught glimpses of the fam­i­ly I would nev­er meet. I knew that these faces from their past had kept them going. Their most painful moments were also some­how infused with a deep love for the peo­ple they knew. Under­stand­ing this, I final­ly began to see Auschwitz.

Rec­om­mend­ed Reading

Rena’s Promise: A Sto­ry of Sis­ters in Auschwitz by Rena Korn­re­ich Gelis­sen with Heather Dune Macadam

Keren Blank­feld is a long-form jour­nal­ist with a spe­cial inter­est in inves­tiga­tive nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion. Her sto­ries have appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Reuters, The Toron­to Star, and oth­ers. She teach­es report­ing and writ­ing at the Colum­bia Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism. She lives in New York with her hus­band and two sons.