(Vienna 1917 – Vienna 2006): Writer with Jewish roots
Stopover at Auschwitz
“But how is it possible to communicate events of this kind? Anyone who has not experienced them themselves will never be able to comprehend them.” With this statement, Fred Wander expresses something that weighed heavily on many survivors: they wanted to bear witness but, in trying to convincingly convey to others the monstrosity of the atrocities and targeted murder, they reached the limits of their powers of expression. Who would believe it? Who could understand it?
Fred Wander’s story is not unusual for many who survived; for whom Auschwitz was merely a stopover because they were considered fit for work and were quickly transferred to other places. Otherwise they would have been doomed to die. Auschwitz was also a stopover for Fred Wander, and yet this glimpse of hell on earth affected him for the rest of his life. The extermination site took on another terrible significance for him: his parents Berta and Jakob Rosenblatt and his sister Renée were murdered at Auschwitz.
Fred Wander, previously Fritz Rosenblatt, grew up in Vienna and after finishing his secondary education he completed an apprenticeship in a clothing factory. Like many others, he was affected by unemployment. He fled to France early on, in May 1938, and after the outbreak of war was interned as an “enemy alien”. When the German Reich occupied parts of France in 1940, he escaped to Marseille in the unoccupied southern part of France. He compellingly described his experience there in the novel “Hôtel Baalbek”. An attempt to escape to Switzerland failed; Switzerland handed him over to Vichy France, which collaborated with the murderous Nazi regime and surrendered its Jewish refugees to it. From the Camp de Rivesaltes internment camp in the Pyrenees, he was deported to Auschwitz via the Drancy collection camp near Paris, into the “first circle of hell”. In his narratives, as with others, time becomes relative: the journey in a wagon soiled with cow dung and dusted with cement had lasted “about a week”. The passages on Auschwitz in the memoirs Das gute Leben oder Von der Fröhlichkeit im Schrecken (“The Good Life or Of Happiness in Horror”) are brief, but profound in their intensity. A journey without food and water, with the dying the dead in the wagon; nobody wanted to comprehend that they were closer to death than to life. On the ramp: the roar of the SS men, the blows, kicks, the separation of the weak, sick, old and children. He recalled music, such as the song “How can Sigismund help being so beautiful?” The victims were supposed to be struck with paralysis, rendered defenceless.
Fred Wander was “selected” to join those fit for work, then taken to the Groß-Rosen concentration camp to perform forced labour, and, finally, was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp. After ten years in Vienna, he moved to the GDR in 1958, where – although he left had the Austrian Communist Party in 1968 – he lived and worked as a reporter and writer until 1983. He then moved back to Vienna.
Fred Wanders’ descriptions of his concentration camp experience often seem deliberately detached, but sometimes they are quite the opposite, such as the passage about hunger, starvation, having hallucinations about a piece of bread, and their aftermath: “It’s just in my head that something is crazy –every day I’m happy to have a piece of bread on the table, life means constantly starting again, in the simplest way.”
Walter Grünzweig, Ursula Seeber (eds), Fred Wander. Leben und Werk, Bonn 2005.
Fred Wander, Der siebente Brunnen. Roman. With a foreword by Ruth Klüger, Göttingen 2006.
Fred Wander, Das gute Leben oder Von der Fröhlichkeit im Schrecken. Erinnerungen, Göttingen 22006. (The quotations are taken from this publication.)