From the edge of the dark a voice shouted " Aufstehen." From within the darkness another echoed "Stavache," and a black stirring followed with everyone extricating their limbs. All we had to do was to find our shoes in order to jump down. The whip whistled and lashed those who did not emerge fast enough from their blankets. Lash in hand, the stubhova standing in the passageway would fly up to the third tier, to the center of the cells, whipping faces and legs numb with sleep. When everything moved and stirred, when everywhere blankets shook themselves out and folded themselves, we heard the clink of metal against metal, vapor veiled the candle's flickering at the core of the dark. They were uncovering the tin cans to dish out tea. Those who had just come in were leaning against the wall, out of breath, trying to contain with their hand on their chest the rapid beating of their heart. They had come back from the kitchens which are far, very far when you must carry a huge, heavy can by holding on to handles that cut into the palms of your hands. Far in the snow, on ice-covered roads or in the mud where you take three steps forward and two back, moving forward and drawing back, falling and getting up and falling again under a weight much too heavy for arms devoid of strength. When they have caught their breath, they say, "It's cold this morning, colder than last night." They say "this morning." It is the middle of the night, a little after three.
The tea steams with a nauseating smell. The stubhovas dispense niggardly portions to our feverish thirsts. They keep the greater part for their ablutions. It is certainly the best use one can make of this, and we would also like to have a wash in good hot water. We have not washed since we arrived, not even our hands in cold water. We drink the tea from our tin cups still smelling of last night's soup. There is no water to wash out the cups either. To drink tea means triumphing in a wild tug-of- war, a melee of club blows, elbowings, fisticuffs, screams. Consumed by thirst and fever, we whirl and swirl in the melee. We drink our tea standing, jostled by those who fear not being served and those who want to exit, because they must do so at once, as soon as they are up. A last blow of the whistle. Alles raus.
The door swings open on the starry night. Each morning is the coldest it has ever been. Each morning we feel that whatever we had to bear is now unbearable, too much, we can no longer take it. At the stars' sill we halt, hesitating, wanting to draw back. This unleases the clubs, the whips, the shrieks. Those standing at the door are hurled into the cold. From the depths of the block, under a pelting rain of blows, everyone is hurled into the cold.
Outside lies the exposed ground, piles of stones, of earth, obstacles to skirt, ditches to avoid, together with ice, mud or snow and the night's excrement. Outside, the piercing cold penetrates us to our very bones. Icy blades. The night outside is bright with cold. The moon casts blue shadows on the ice and the snow.
It's roll-call time. All the blocks disgorge their shadowy figures. Moving awkwardly from cold and fatigue, a crowd reels toward the Lager- strasse. It falls into ranks of five in a bedlam of shrieks and blows. It takes a long time for all these shadows to line up, as they lose their footing on the ice, in the mud and the snow, all these shadows looking for each other, huddling together to reduce their exposure to the icy wind.
Then silence reigns.
Neck drawn into her shoulders, chest pulled in, each places her hands under the arms of the one in front of her. Since they cannot do it in the first row, we rotate. Backs to chests, we stand pressed against each other, yet, as we establish a single circulatory system, we remain frozen through and through. Annihilated by the cold. Feet, these remote and separate extremities, cease to exist. Shoes stay wet from yesterday's and all yesterdays' snow and mud. They never dry.
We will have to stay motionless for hours in the cold and the wind. We do not speak. Words freeze on our lips. Masses of women standing immobile are struck with stupor. In the night. In the cold. In the wind.
We remain immobile and the amazing thing is that we remain standing. Why? No one thinks, "What's the good of that?" or no one voices this thought. At the end of our rope, we remain standing.
I am standing amid my comrades and I think to myself that if I ever return and will want to explain the inexplicable, I shall say: "I was saying to myself: you must stay standing though roll call. You must get through one more day. It is because you got through today that you will return one day, if you ever return. " This is not so. Actually I did not say anything to myself. I thought of nothing. The will to resist was doubtlessly buried in some deep, hidden spring which is now broken, I will never know. And if the women who died had required those who returned to account for what had taken place, they would be unable to do so. I thought of nothing. I felt nothing. I was a skeleton of cold, with cold blowing through all the crevices in between a skeleton's ribs.
I am standing amid my comrades. I do not look at the stars. They stab with cold. I do not look at the barbed-wire enclosures, white in the night under the lights. They are claws of cold. I see my mother with that mask of hardened will her face has become. My mother. Far. I look at nothing. I think of nothing.
Each breath drawn in is so cold that it strips the whole respiratory system. Skin ceases to be the tight protective covering for the body. The cold strips us nude, down to the bowels. The lungs flap in the icy wind. Wash out on a line. The heart is shrunk from cold, contracted, constricted till it aches, and suddenly I feel something snap there, in my heart. My heart breaks loose from my chest and everything that holds it in its place. I feel a stone falling inside me, dropping with a thud. It is my heart. I am filled with a wonderful sense of well-being. How good one feels, free of this fragile, demanding heart. One sinks into a soft lightness which must be happiness. Everything melts within me, everything assumes the fluidity of joy. I surrender, and it is sweet to surrender to easeful death, sweeter than to love, and to know that it is over, no more suffering and struggling, or requiring the impossible from a heart at the end of its ressources. This fit of giddiness lasts less than an instant, but long enough to experience a bliss one did not know existed.
When I come to, it is from the shock of the slaps Viva imprints on my cheeks with all her might, lips tight, eyes averted. Viva is strong. She does not faint at roll call. I do, every morning. It is a moment of indescribable happiness. Viva must never know this.
Again and again she speaks my name which surges, distant, from the bottom of the void — it is my mother's voice I hear. The voice grows hard: "Keep your chin up! On your feet!" And I feel that I cling to Viva as a child to its mother. I am hanging onto her who kept me from falling into the mud, into the snow from which one never rises. And I must struggle to choose between this consciousness which means suffering and this abandon which promised happiness, and I am able to make this choice because Viva tells me, “Keep your chin up! On your feet!” I do not argue with this command. Although I long to give in once, once since it will be the only time. It is so easy to die here. All you must do is let go of your heart.
I regain possession of myself, and of my body, as though slipping back into cold and wet clothes. My pulse is returning and beating, my lips seared by the cold are torn at the mouth's corners. I regain possession of the anguish that permanently fills me, and of the hope to which I did such violence.
Viva no longer uses her hard voice and asks, " D'you feel better ?" and her voice is so comfortingly tender that I answer, "Yes, Viva. I'm better." It is my lips that answer, and in so doing tear a little more where they are chapped by fever and cold.
I am surrounded by my comrades. I take my place once more in the poor communal warmth created by our contact, and since we must return completely, I return to the roll call and think: It's the morning roll call — what a poetic title, it would be — the call of the morning. I no longer knew the difference between morning and evening.
This is the morning roll call. The sky gradually brightens in the east. A flaming spray spills there, frozen flames, and the shadows drowning our own dissolve little by little, letting our faces emerge from the dark. All these purplish, deathly livid faces grow more so as the light spreads in the sky. Now you can tell who was grazed by death last night, who will be taken away this evening. For death is imprinted on the face, clings implacably to it, and our eyes do not need to meet for all of us to realize as we look at Suzanne Rose that she is going to die, that Mounette is going to die. Death is imprinted on the skin drawn tight over the cheekbones, the skin stuck to the eye sockets, stuck to the jawbones. And we know that it is no use now to call forth their home, or their son, their mother. It is too late. There is nothing we can do for them.
Darkness dissolves a bit more. The dogs' barking is coming closer. They mark the arrival of the SS. The blockhovas shout "Quiet!" in their impossible tongues. The cold nips our hands emerging from below our comrades' arms. Fifteen thousand women stand at attention.
The SS women officers stride by — tall in their black capes, boots, high black hoods. They count us as they pass. And it lasts a long time.
When they have passed by, each one of us places her hands back in another woman's armpits. Coughs repressed until then burst forth and the blockhovas shout "Quiet!" at the coughs in their impossible languages. We must still wait, await the break of day.
The dark dissolves. The sky is aglow. We can now see hallucinating processions passing by. Little Rolande asks, "Let me through to the first row. I want to see." Later she will explain, "I was sure of recognizing her. She had deformed feet. I was sure to know her by her feet." Her mother had been taken to the charnel house a few days earlier. She kept watch each day to know when her mother died.
Hallucinating processions pass by. These are the women who died in the night, taken from the charnel houses to the morgue. They are naked on stretchers fashioned roughly from branches, stretchers far too short. The legs — the shinbones — hang over the side with their thin, bare feet at the end. The head hangs over the other side, bony and shaven. A tattered blanket is thrown across the middle. Four prisoners carry the stretchers, one at each handle, and it is true that you go feet first, this was always the direction in which they carried the corpses. They walk with difficulty in the snow or the mud, and fling the body on the pile near block 25. They return with an empty stretcher, hardly less heavy, and pass by again with a new corpse. It is their work every day, their everyday work.
I watch them go by and brace myself. A while back I was surrendering to death. Each dawn I experience the same temptation. When the stretcher passes by, I brace myself. I wish to die but not to be carried on the small stretcher. Not to be carried by on the short stretcher with hanging legs and head, naked under a tattered blanket. I do not wish to be carried on the small stretcher.
Death is reassuring. I would not feel it. "You're not afraid of the crematorium, so what is there to fear?" How fraternal death can be. Those who depicted it as hideous never saw it. However, revulsion wins out. I do not wish to pass by, carried on the small stretcher.
I know then that all those who pass by are passing for me, that all those who died died for me. I watch them passing and I say no. To slide into death, here, in the snow. Let yourself slide. No, because there is the little stretcher. I do not wish to pass by carried on the small stretcher.
The dark is completely dissolved. It is colder now. I hear my heart beating and I speak to it just as Arnolphe spoke to his. I talk to my heart. When will the time come when I will no longer have to be in charge of my heart, my lungs, my muscles? When will this enforced solidarity between the brain, the nerves, the bones and all the organs we have in our belly cease? When will the time come when we will no longer know one another, my heart and me?
The red of the sky fades and the sky grows pale. Far off, in the livid sky, black crows appear, swooping down over the camp in dense flocks.
We await the end of roll call. We await the end of roll call to go off to work.
Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, translation Rosette C. Lamont, Yale University Press, 1995