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4 December 2014

A history of violence: A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg

The story of Rosenberg’s father David, and his struggle to construct a new life after surviving the Holocaust was first published in Sweden in 2012; since then it has sold over 200,000 copies and been translated into nine languages. But Rosenberg wonders if he has the ability to tell the story at all, given that he is writing it “much later” than the events described.

By Thomas Harding

A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz 
Göran Rosenberg; translated by Sarah Death
Granta Books, 336pp, £16.99

At the beginning of his memoir A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, the Swedish journalist Göran Rosenberg raises the question of veracity. The story of Rosenberg’s father, David, and his struggle to construct a new life after surviving the Holocaust was first published in Sweden in 2012; since then it has sold over 200,000 copies and been translated into nine languages. But Rosenberg wonders if he has the ability to tell the story at all, given that he is writing it “much later” than the events described. In the growing fashion of narrative non-fiction writers, the author promises to avoid speculation. Instead, he betrays his lack of certainty by deploying expressions such as “perhaps”, “probably”, “I don’t know exactly” and “in my imagination”.

David lives in Lodz; he is 16 when, following Germany’s occupation of Poland in 1939, he is forced, along with his family and over a hundred thousand other Jews, into the ghetto. He avoids deportation until August 1944, when he is transported to Auschwitz, before being shunted from one camp to the next: Belsen, Saschsenhausen, Buchenwald and Wöbbelin. Throughout this time, he suffers terrible hardship, starvation and beatings. Of his family, only he and his brother survive. After the war, David seeks refuge in Sweden, and attempts to build a new life in a small industrial town. Gradually, the trauma of the camps catches up with him, upsetting his equanimity and throwing his family into chaos.

Rosenberg’s assertion of authorial integrity at the beginning of the book is undermined throughout. He does speculate; and then goes further, reproducing a novelist’s description of life in a cattle cart, thus stepping into the world of fiction. The truth of the story is put into further question by divergent views about how to label it. In 2012 A Brief Stop won Sweden’s prestigious August Prize – for fiction. Granta (in the UK) and the Other Press (in the US) both describe it as non-fiction “memoir”.

As the book continues, Rosenberg focuses on his father’s plan to overcome the past, described as the “Project”. At issue is whether to remain in the small town, referred to as the “Place”, or to leave, so that he can break through the “horizon”. These words – project, place, horizon – are repeated over and over again. It is his father’s belief, although he continues to be haunted by “shadows”, that the Child – as the author awkwardly calls himself – should have a chance to create a new life.

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David applies to the German government for compensation. While the lawyers argue about the extent of his inability to work (is it 0 per cent, 25 per cent or 60 per cent?) his mental state further unravels. It is hard not to be shocked by his retraumatising. I gasped out loud when a psychiatrist concluded that, “without doubt, the patient is exaggerating his difficulties”. In a final letter to his family before committing suicide, David writes: “I suffer the agonies of hell and I can’t go on. I can’t live with normal people.”

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Rosenberg’s writing is best when sparse – as in: “precise figures and arbitrary abbreviations are the crowbars of Nazi euphemism” – or when his observation is acute: “There are those who have to forget because they don’t want to remember (and therefore remember all too well), and there are those who forget because they have nothing particular to remember.” Some of the strongest passages in the book are those written by other people: letters from David in which he movingly implores his fiancée to join him in Sweden (she had survived the camps and returned to Lodz); or the astonishing speech by Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish leader in the ghetto, who argues that all children under the age of ten must be sacrificed in order to save everyone else.

The writing is less persuasive when Ros­enberg makes generalisations; for instance, “You who have survived Auschwitz are all damaged, whether it shows or not . . .” Equally problematic are the points at which the author tells the reader how to react emotionally, as when, talking about memorials, he writes: “You have to hand it to the Germans, even in commemorating repulsive acts, they’re conscientious.”

Sarah Death’s English translation maintains a consistency of tone and rhythm, successfully conveying Rosenberg’s – dare I say it – meta commentary without arrogance or conceit. There are only a few lines that do not quite ring true (take: “Luck, chance and freak are the stones with which every road from Auschwitz is paved”).

While details of the horrors of the camps will be known to many, and they can never be recounted enough, what may be new, at least to an English-speaking readership, is the plight of Swedish Jews. The anti-Semitism of the pre-war years, the insipid instances of abuse afterwards and the sad lives of those who sought refuge in Sweden in the 1940s are all of great interest. For these reasons alone it is worth picking up this book. 

Thomas Harding is the author of “Hanns and Rudolf: the German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz” (Windmill, £7.99)