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“Every day is Holocaust Day to me”: concentration camp survivor Ed Mosberg on reliving trauma

After giving testimony in the film Destination Unknown 72 years after liberation, one of the last Holocaust survivors discusses why he never really left.

A 92-year-old man is sitting at a café terrace on London’s Southbank, munching resolutely on sugar lumps. Bright morning sunshine bounces off the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, whose bells you can hear across the river where he sits.

As he sips black coffee, his checked blazer sleeve rides up to reveal a bracelet bearing the number 85454. It is the original prison number plate, about the size of a razor blade, he was forced to wear on a wire around his wrist by the Nazis at Mauthausen concentration camp.

“That was my name,” he says, when he catches me looking. He had it fixed to a gold chain, so that whenever someone asks him what it is, he can tell his story.

His real name is Ed Mosberg, and he is one of the handful of Holocaust survivors still fit and willing to recount what they experienced. Nimble for his age – he bounces up to help me with my jacket – and smartly turned out, his white hair is swept back, and he wears a shirt and diamond-patterned tie. He even does 100 press-ups and ten minutes on a treadmill every morning.

“Touch my muscles!” he cries, in a thick Polish accent, clenching his right bicep. His pale blue eyes flash with mischief – but they soon fill with rage. He is in London for the opening of a docu-film called Destination Unknown, in which 12 Holocaust survivors tell their stories. He is one of them.


Ed Mosberg carrying the Torah at the 2017 March of the Living. Photo: Destination Unknown

Fourteen years in the making, the film recounts how the Jews suffered in the Second World War, and the ensuing trauma, through the voices of those who were there, with no other narration.

Their stories are difficult to hear. The sadistic commandant Amon Goeth ordering his dog to attack and tear a prisoner apart, children and mothers with babies in their arms in line for the gas chamber, the inmate taken in for an “operation” to crack open his skull – without anaesthesia.

It is 72 years since Mosberg was liberated but, as his wife says in the film, it’s like he “never left”.

“I always talk about it, you understand?” he says, leaning across the table towards me, the Star of David and Polish flag brooches glinting on his lapel. “When I talk about it, I go through pain. But I have to do it. Because if I stop, no one talks.”

And there is so much to tell. As a 13-year-old boy in Krakow, Mosberg was excited that he didn’t have to go to school when the Nazis began moving him and his extended family into one cramped apartment in the ghetto. “I was still happy when I could see my grandparents and everybody together,” he smiles. “And then they slowly start eliminating – taking away my grandparents, my aunt, my uncle, everybody.”


Ed Mosberg at Birkenau. Photo: Destination Unknown

Mosberg lost all 16 members of his family. His mother was killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, his two sisters machine-gunned into the Baltic Sea on the day of liberation. Uncertain of their fate, he was moved from camp to camp – Plaszow in Poland to Mauthausen then Linz in Austria – keeping hold of their photographs.

Arriving at Mauthausen when he had to undress, he somehow got hold of a paper bag – “I don’t know anybody else who did!” – and kept his photos in it, cutting the larger ones into small squares so that they would fit in his uniform pocket. “I had them all the time; I never was without them,” he says.

Glued back together, his family now smile down on him 72 years later from his bedroom wall in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and fellow Holocaust survivor Cesia. Marrying in Belgium at the age of 21 shortly after the end of the war, they moved in 1951 to the US, where he works as a property developer.

He has three daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and proudly shows me pictures of them – all smiles at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

Mosberg has taken his children and grandchildren to the camps, which he has returned to “many, many times”. It was 50 years ago when he first went back, to Mauthausen, and carried one of his children up its “Stairs of Death”– 186 stone steps up which inmates had to carry large boulders on their shoulders.

If an exhausted prisoner fell or dropped his boulder, those behind him would fall or be crushed in a domino effect. The Nazis would then make them push each other off the top of the stairs to their death. “It was like a game for them,” Mosberg recalls, grimly.


Ed Mosberg wearing his original prison uniform. Photo: Destination Unknown

Unlike him, Mosberg’s wife is unable to talk about what she suffered. She was in multiple concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and on several death marches. “But she don’t talk,” Mosberg says. She does dream, though. “Many times in the night, she wakes up, and she asks ‘drown me’, the way her sister together with my sisters were shot and thrown into the Baltic Sea. And she calls for her mother in the middle of the night.”

Mosberg himself has nightmares, but not as often. “I can hear the cries of the people who were murdered there, and my family: ‘Don't forget us,’” he says. “How can we forget and forgive the murder? Because to forgive would mean to kill them a second time.

“May they never be forgotten, the horror, and the barbarians, what they did. The United Nations made 27 January Holocaust Day. As far as I am concerned, no. To me, Holocaust Day is on Monday,” he begins banging the table steadily with his fist. “And on Tuesday, and on Wednesday and on Thursday, and every day is a Holocaust Day to me.”

Destination Unknown is in cinemas from 16 June. Find out more at destinationunknownmovie.com.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear