When, as an undergraduate studying Dostoyevsky, I first read Mikhail Bakhtin’s chapter on the history of laughter, I thought of my mother, my grandparents and the other immigrants that had suffered and survived alongside them. Even during the darkest conversations seeped in the most agonizing recollections, they could laugh with a voluptuous wealth as if to announce a triumph of human will. At the start of a recent yoga class, the instructor asked us to think about what the term authentic means to us and to think of another word to assign with it. Immediately my mind reverted to this scholarly experience, some 25 years ago: authentic laughter. In our “society” or “culture” – as much as those words can be authentically applied to the 21st century -- I recall very few instances of witnessing what I would describe as authentic laughter.
The philosopher, literary critic and semiotics scholar Bakhtin argues, in much loftier terms, that laughter can liberate all individuals from personal and situated constraints, compelling individuals into open-ended communication with each other.
“I don’t know if I remember because my parents told me, but they were separating men from women and families, so my father dressed as a woman so he could stay with us. My father was more than 6-feet tall,” mother says, laughing. “A lot of people got separated from their families, children from their mothers, and it was really an agony to hear some of them screaming.”
The laughter’s momentary relief wears abruptly off like a narcotic, as my mother’s memory is quickly led back to a horrific image.
“When we still were in Russia (Belarus) where my brother died, the German soldiers would cut off the breasts of young women that would not (sexually) submit to them, and in the wintertime they would tie them to the sled naked and parade them around so other women would see what happens to them if they do not submit to them. At that time, I didn’t understand what it was. I only figured it out afterwards, when my mother was telling other people, but it still was really terrible to see that.”
Even as my mother recalls arriving in Germany on a freight train from Poland, her memory wanders back to the atrocities in Vitebsk.
The recollections of so many crimes and killings seem to often come together as a single blur of endless suffering. My mother believes her grandmother and aunt were killed before her brothers died, “but there was no one there to take their bodies and they were just left there. And then I guess when we were taking my brother to be buried there -- of course there was no casket or anything, they were just buried in the ground, and so we buried them together.”
My maternal grandfather was the oldest child from “a very large family.” His brother, Alexi, was only 17 or 18 when his mother and sister were killed, “and he somehow snuck out during the night and came crying to tell us what happened,” my mother says. “My father just saw their heads split open (by a rifle handle) … and they were beaten first. My aunt was 16, that I remember. I don’t really know how old my grandmother was at that time.”
My mother’s story shifts to what she says she saw or experienced on her own. Much of it still is a blur.
“When we were brought to Germany, we were stripped of all the clothes and they were putting all this chlorine on us to disinfect us. We were the prisoners, so we would just to go through, and first, the stuff was sprayed on us, and then afterwards it must have been showers and some water was sprayed on us because the Germans didn’t want us to bring any kind of disease back to Germany. And then we were in a camp, under barbed wires. And we weren't given much food and people tried to go against the barbed wire to try and get the rest, and they were being hit for that.”
“The German farmers had the right to come and choose people to come and work for them, and since I was the only child and my parents were still young at that time, they were chosen to work on this farm. And by that time I guess I must've been 7.”
My maternal grandparents were selected to be slave laborers for a family headed by a man who was serving in the German Army at the time, and the grandfather and the daughter-in-law who were in charge “were nice to my parents,” mother says. The farm was somewhere near Nuremberg (Nürnberg), maybe a small village called Doldorf, of which I find no record on any map.
“We were just given a room in the barn to sleep. In Germany at that time, no bedrooms were heated anyway, but you could put hot water in bottles. But they didn’t have any hot water bottles for us, so you just put the hot water and sort of would mop your bed (with it), when it was cold in the winter.”
My mother recalls the old man as opa, the informal name for grandfather in German, and the soldier’s son as Hans, but she can’t say how long they were there before being herded off again.
“It was a long time … it's months or years I guess. I don’t know.”
Nor does she recall the duration of their stay at the camp. She doesn’t know the name or location.
Based on her estimated age during this period, I’m inclined to believe my mother was born in 1938 (as destroyed records indicated) rather than in 1936 as now official records suggest.
As of January 1945, nearly 6.7 million (including 4.8 million foreign civilians representing 14 nationalities; 1.87 prisoners of war; and 23,200 “politicals” or people arrested in their native countries for “subversive activities” against the Nazis and transported to Germany for incarceration), according to Allied and German data accompanied with an affidavit by economic analyst Edward L. Deuss, who worked for the Foreign Economic Administration in Washington. The majority, or more than 4 million, were Russians, which at the time would have included ethnic Ukrainians.
Fritz Sauckel, the Nazi politician who served as Hitler’s chief recruiter of slave labor during World War II, acknowledged at the March 1, 1944, meeting of the Central Planning Board that “out of 5 million foreign workers who arrived in Germany, not even 200,000 came voluntarily."
(Loosely translated, this Nazi propaganda poster (in Russian) boasts: "I live with a German family and am very happy.")
Information from the Nuremberg trials estimated that there were 12 million forced laborers in a class of forced labor camp known as zwangsarbeiter.
At an arbeitslager, forced laborers were guarded and movement of inmates restricted. Those who broke their contracts or didn't produce their quota, were sent to an arbeitsziehungslager for “re-education,” which amounted to punishment and often death. Death rates also were high at zonzentrationlager, camps controlled by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or Reich Main Security Office or Reich Security Main Office or Reich Security Head Office (RSHA.)
I cannot confirm at what type of camp (closely guarded under barbed wire) my mother’s parents were enslaved. The farm must have been classified as a gemeinschaftslager, which was an unguarded community.
“We were just all like cattle. I don’t even remember if we slept on a floor all the time next to each other or in cots, I don’t remember that … We were either on the ground or maybe we had cots. I don’t remember. At one place I think we were in cots. But most of the time it was the floor and we were just given an army blanket because I know there were army blankets because afterwards my mother made a jumper for me from the army blanket.”
Even the days at the farm, which clearly were among the safest (and happiest) for my mother, were encumbered with alienation.
“I was not allowed to play with other kids there. I was not allowed to go to their school. I wasn’t allowed to do anything that the farmers' kids did. They would say that we're the slaves and that there is Luba, she's all white, and she's not allowed to use anything. That I remember.”
For any child such memories can carve cavernous wounds. For my mother these were compounded by what would be unlivable conditions to most Americans today.
“We were given hardly any food, that I remember.” When there was food, it was “just something white that should've resembled soup (again, that laughter emerges). Whatever it was, I don’t know. I don’t even remember if we had bread. I just don’t remember that. “
She doesn’t recall how they accessed water, saying only that “I guess we were given water because we lived, we didn’t die. … I don’t remember bathing there at all.”
My mother doesn’t remember the day they left the camp, as the less tragic memories prevail.
“I just remember when we got to the farm and we lived there, which was of course much, much better than that camp. I think it looked nice. It had big fields everywhere. When it was time to get crops, maybe rye and maybe wheat, all of the workers, even the German ones, and other Russians that were taken by some of the farmers, they would be all working there. And they used to make this soup, in these big, big containers like the old milk containers, and that soup was --- AAAAH! It had ham in it! And it had vegetables! And beans! And so I used to go there, too, because they used to give it to the workers so my mother could give me some of that soup to eat! That was very good.”
“The other thing I remember, on the farm, is they made all of their own cold cuts and everything because they used to kill whatever kind of cattle. And on Sundays, they used to have this supper that was wonderful. It was all cold cuts and hardboiled eggs, but of course, we weren't given enough of it, but it was delicious. I never can find cold cuts like that anywhere in the world,” she says, again with the buoyant laughter. “Life there was not bad. And on Easter time they had an egg hunt and I could never find anything (more laughter). And I guess I was upset, but and then afterwards, I don’t know how I found this out, but when the Germans lost the war, but during the war, too, they were given cards, to get certain foods. And for each child, I guess the children were to get candy, but I was never given any of that candy. And so when the war ended and when we found out that the Germans couldn’t do anything to us, I said to them, (the laughter escalating into triumphant joy) where is all of my candy that was given to me but you never gave to me?”
The laughter unleashes the strong voice of liberation. A child who knew for the first time that she was “free,” whatever that meant. The laughter that punctuated her request for the candy she was owed – she knew she would never get it, but for the first time she could speak -- was born of a rebellion, the breaking free of a spirit that had been imprisoned along with the body. The laughter is far more powerful than the words.
"Laughter overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never used by violence and authority.” _ Bakhtin