I visited Israel for the first time in May of 1964, invited with my family by President Zalman Shazar to lecture, read my poems and travel about. We were put up in Jerusalem, introduced around, and sent by chauffeured car to stay for a few days in the north at a kibbutz on the Jordan below the Golan Heights. It was to be the first of several such later visits under various auspices. But there was an hour we spent with the President at the end of our two weeks that remains painfully strong in memory: our meeting with Frau Braun.
We had lived that year in Italy, where I was a Fulbright Research scholar. One good way to learn a language, given some basic prior lessons, is to study a quality newspaper, so I dutifully ran all through CORRIERE DELLA SERA, THE NEW YORK TIMES of Italy. Over 4 months, from November of 1963, I had read full-page, lengthy articles concerning “Il processo Frankfurt,” or, the Frankfurt trial. The principal accused was an Auschwitz commandant, one Wilhelm Boger, whose sobriquet was “The Tiger of Auschwitz.” He had been arrested after a successful post-war career, having become a rich businessman who’d never been questioned before. At that time he was in his late 60s. Of the many witnesses for the prosecution there was a woman called Frau Braun. I made out what I could of the facts and arguments, details by then more or less familiar from Nuremberg and the trial of Adoph Eichmann; but some things puzzled me. One in particular was the recurrence of the word “altalena.” Having little children, I knew the word meant“ swing,” yet it made no sense to me in terms of those reports. There was scarcely any coverage of that trial in THE HERALD-TRIBUNE, the English-language newspaper available in Florence. I was to learn from the lips of Frau Braun what altalena had signified in Auschwitz.
On the last Sunday we spent in Jerusalem, we were invited to Kiddush at the President’s House. Arriving before noon, we were ushered into Shazar’s library, a very large, high-ceilinged room, three of its sides lined with books. The wall behind the settee on which the President sat seemed notable to me for the uniformity of its shelves; hundreds and hundreds of black-bound, encyclopedia-sized volumes. An elegantly-suited, quite handsome woman with jetblack hair sat quietly at his right. The little coffee table held the Kiddush cups and a tea service. After Shazar introduced her as Frau Braun, we sipped some wine in a toast and sat again. He excused himself for having an unexpected visitor, a stranger to him who had just turned up. An aide walked in just then, carrying three more of those books.
The President directed him to put them in place alphabetically, and explained what they were. Each of those volumes had been printed over the years and a copy deposited in this residence as well as elsewhere in Jerusalem, notably at Yad Vashem. Each was all that remained to remember a shtetl that was no more: each contained the records of some town, village, or hamlet now extinct: lists of births and marriages and deaths for as long as Jews had been there, the last known dates of its last inhabitants. Each recounted the story of its beginnings and vicissitudes — until the Shoah. Hundreds and hundreds of communities — who knew how many? Ever since since King Casimir had invited the Jews to Poland in 1334 and settled them in what was to become the Pale — all gone as though they had never been. Shazar told us that several of those tomes were completed and brought to him every week: it seemed there might never be an end to the making of these memorials. Then he turned to Frau Braun and asked her why she had come to Jerusalem.
She had stopped in Israel for the first time in her life, she said, en route home to Mexico City after having been in Germany for many months. At that point, I inquired whether she could be that Signora Braun I had read about in Italy? Yes, she was. Then she told us something of what that happened there.
Called to Frankfurt by the German court and assured full hospitality from the moment she left her front door, she was persuaded to overcome her reluctance ever to speak of Auschwitz. But she had been pressed for a year or so beforehand, assured it was absolutely necessary that she speak, if justice were to be served, since she alone was the principal witness to the doings of Boger, “The Tiger of Auschwitz.” She reached Frankfurt in a state of of barely-suppressed panic, where she was met at the airport by nuns who offered to take her to a secluded and quiet apartment in their convent, and prevent anyone but the officials concerned with the case from getting to her. At first, she feared these were not real nuns, that it was an awful charade. After a while, she realized they were not only well-meaning, but were the only people who could provide her sanctuary and the care that would otherwise have been impossible in Germany, which figured to her imagination as located today in the depths of Hell.
I asked her how it had gone, that trial? She told us everything had been efficient; the prosecution and police decent and considerate; the procedure orderly. She almost fainted the first time she entered the courtroom and saw Wilhelm Boger himself. During the questions meant to establish his identity, she came close to utter collapse, the having to face this now old man in civilian clothes, who stared into her eyes with cold rage. Her testimony was powerful, not just because she had seen him, heard of him, passed by or imagined him at Auschwitz, but because she had been his private secretary and also the stenographer chosen to observe daily and take notes while he “interrogated” prisoners. She had been in her twenties, and must have been beautiful indeed, to judge by her mature, handsome bearing 18 years later. She knew five languages besides German: Polish, Italian, English, Hungarian and Spanish. It was her job to sit beside Boger daily, attending him not only in his office, but in that “chamber,” as we would term the place of torture.
Was that something to do with the word altalena? I asked. “The Boger swing”? Yes, it was a meter-long iron bar suspended by chains hung from the ceiling. We could never have imagined what it was for until she described it, in a monotone spoken as by rote, its details recalled and rehearsed repeatedly during her months bearing witness in Frankfurt. A prisoner would be brought in for “questioning,” stripped naked and bent over the bar, wrists manacled to ankles. A guard at one side would shove him – or her — off across the chamber in a long, slow arc, while Boger would ask “questions,” at first quietly, then barking them out, and at the last bellowing. At each return, another guard armed with a crowbar would smash the victim across the buttocks. As the swinging went on and on, and the wailing victim fainted, was revived only to faint howling again, the blows continued —until only a mass of bleeding pulp hung before their eyes. Most perished from the ordeal; some sooner, some later; in the end a sack of of bones and flayed flesh and fat was swept along the shambles of that concrete floor to be dragged away.
For her own life, Frau Braun had had to maintain an icy calm; to wear daylong her mask of sangfroid; to take notes, set down every word in neat pages and file the transcript nightly. For that work, she received food rations that sufficed to keep her going. Towards the end, when it was clear to the SS that the Russians were nearing the camp, Boger reminded her that, all in all, she’d lived a good life in the years she served him. In any case, she would never have left Auschwitz alive. Frau Braun repeated his grim words in German, in the matter-of fact-tone in which he had spoken them. “You see, my pretty Fräulein, you will never live to tell the tale.”
Yet live she did.
When I asked about her years in Mexico, her marriage, and wondered if she had a family, the sad expression with which she replied was devastating. “I was saved in Auschwitz because I belonged to Boger. And because I belonged to Boger, I could never have children.” The slight gesture of her hand upon her belly said it all.
Innumerable testimonies since 1946 have spoken of those atrocities visited upon the bodies of men, women, and children. Not until she sat in that white, book-lined room, dignified and sorrowful as a forlorn queen, did I feel the absolute, frozen force of that by-then too familiar history of evil. What followed persists in memory.
After she was released from her ordeal of testimony, she had been taken by the nuns her hosts to a hotel where she was to rest two nights. Her flight from Frankfurt was scheduled for Sunday morning. She was packing her bag when the desk rang up to alert her that visitors were coming to her room. She waited, apprehensive. When she opened to their knocks, she saw police with the State Prosecutor, who apologized although insisting there was nothing for it but she must go with them. They drove her in an official Mercedes limo into a wooded suburb somewhere, which made her fear for her life, imagining that despite all assurances this time she was lost. They stopped at the home of the trial judge. She was led to his study and seated at a desk before him. The man was somber. What did he say? “Wissen sie, Frau Braun, you do understand how strong is your testimony: you were there; you were cared for; you have lived on to witness. Herr Boger is not young. Moreover he is well-known, a successful, honorable citizen — certainly so far as Germany is concerned. However, what you have told the court may suffice to convict him; he will be sentenced and sent to prison, perhaps for life. Given this situation, I regret I must ask you once more in private, outside the court, Is your testimony true?”
Frau Braun answered that she’d declared to him plainly and patiently that she had traveled all the way from Mexico to Germany, from a life renewed far from the horrors of Auschwitz — and had sworn before the court.
“Ja, aber doch — but even so…?” that judge persisted.
“What more could you wish from me?”
He picked up a book, slammed it on the desk and demanded, Was she willing swear on this Bible, before him and before God, that what she’d spoken from the witness stand was true.
She was. She did.
Turning to us, Frau Braun added, “After they drove me back to the hotel, I was given something to make me sleep. I don’t remember being taken to the plane. I don’t remember the flight to Israel. I still shudder at the thought of those Germans, decent enough taken individually, I suppose. I shake. Look, even now am I safe — here, in Jerusalem!”
We looked at President Shazar, who shrugged. There was nothing more to be said in this heavy silence. We rose, shook hands with Frau Braun and Israel’s president and left them to sit quietly gazing out the broad window through which could be seen the pale blue, empty sky of a quiet Jerusalem Sunday.