This article was written for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was published in the University of Brighton Anthology ‘Reflections’ in 2015.
Pushing a Pram at Birkenau
This photograph of my baby in her pram always makes me smile. I close my eyes, thirty five years disappear, and I stand again in my cottage garden in Kent. The breeze tugs and snaps at the crisp, clean squares, making the rotary clothes line creak. I’m so very proud of those terry nappies – their whitey brilliance dazzles me. My lips quiver as the smell of Daz tickles my nostrils. I tilt back my head to feel the warmth of the sun on my face. A blackbird is singing.
Then I hear a giggle. I open my eyes and turn to where my daughter is propped up in her pram just a few yards away. It is a second hand green Silver Cross, with a rather fancy canopy. My daughter is wearing a yellow and white gingham romper suit and a wide brimmed sun hat. I can see two pearly teeth in her cute gummy smile.
I remember how it felt to push that pram. I would wheel it proudly down the hill to the village – it didn’t matter a jot that it was second hand. The pram would glide and bounce, even when laden with shopping for the walk back. With my daughter facing me, I would keep up a constant stream of nonsense which seemed to amuse her. Now, when I push my granddaughters in their double-decker phil&teds stroller, the girls face away from me and conversation with them is more limited.
Back in the seventies it was predominantly the woman’s role to look after the baby and it was the woman’s job to push the pram. Of course her husband might help her on occasions – lifting it down steps or pushing it up a hill if no one was around to see. But generally the wife pushed the pram. Most of us had proper prams back then – coach built, big wheeled with a nice bouncy suspension. A pram built to keep baby safe and secure. Often second or third hand – there was no shame in that. Of course men are happy to push the modern day equivalent with all the gadgets: four wheel suspension; telescopic handle height adjustment; one handed fold; cup holder for your latte…
But now I am looking at a second photograph. It’s a little boy I think, in a beautiful old wicker pram. Perhaps it’s a family heirloom passed down mother to daughter? It was always considered good parenting to give your baby a daily airing in the pram. Look at him, with his curly blond hair. My daughter’s hair was blond too. He is trying to pull himself up, curious to see what is going on. Is he leaning towards his mother?
It’s a sad fact that no one knows who this little boy is. If he were alive today he would perhaps be in his eighties, but he is un-identified. His picture comes from an archive of photographs smuggled out of Auschwitz. Prisoners were instructed to sort the prized possessions of the incoming – jewellery, glasses, ornaments, and, of course, photographs of loved ones. They were told to destroy the photographs, but a brave handful of prisoners, at great risk to themselves, decided to smuggle some out. A collection of these photographs became ‘The Last Album’, a book written by Ann Weiss.
Re-reading this treasured book on what is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I can’t help but reflect on the terrible suffering of those held there. Just last week 300 survivors returned to the camp. It is likely that this will be the last year that a significant number of survivors will be alive to attend one of these special commemorative dates. Now it is up to us to remember for them.
I came across an account by Giuliana Tedeshci, recorded in ‘There is a Place on Earth: a Woman in Birkenau’. She recollects that, on Sunday 25th June 1944, she was commanded, along with 49 other women, to push empty prams from just outside the gas chambers to a storage area two miles away, ready for reallocated by the Reich. This was a task that was repeated daily over many months.
I wonder who decided that it should be women who did this job? But, of course, pushing the pram is a woman’s work.
What must it have felt like to push those empty prams in prescribed five row formation across the rough terrain of the camp? Was a wicker pram amongst them? Did those women paint on a face of steely resignation and wheel the prams as if they were no more than a trolley or wheel barrow?
No. I think they rested their hands lovingly on the push bars, counterbalancing the bounce of the wheels. I think they closed their eyes and imagined pink cheeked babies asleep under pastel blankets, lovingly knitted by their grandmothers. I think they carefully lifted the front wheels over any loose rubble to avoid disturbing their absent charges.
I think other women stopped what they were doing to stand in silence as the prams rumbled by. Perhaps those who had lost children in the crematorium, felt their breasts swell with phantom milk – the urge to nurse their dead babies overwhelming them. No word was spoken and no sound heard, but for the odd squeak and rattle of the empty prams.
I think this was the day the birds stopped singing at Auschwitz Birkenau.