The 17th day of Adar came out on March 8 this year, and it marked the yahrzeit of my uncle Shlomo (Salomon) Scheinbach’s death – or should I say his murder?
Remarkably, the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany, attests to him dying in Auschwitz at 2 p.m. on Feb. 22, 1943, with the cause of death listed as “pleuropneumonia.”
As a hidden infant, I didn’t know my uncle. My mother, sisters and I had been placed in different safe locales through the efforts of a large extended French family who risked life, limb and torture to save us. And, because I was born on Nov. 4, 1942 – some five months after my father, his siblings and their spouses were arrested in the infamous July 16, 1942, roundup across France – I couldn’t know these members of my deported family, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz. My father perished there at 10:55 a.m. on Sept. 23, 1942. The cause of his death was officially recorded as “bilateral pneumonia.”
To round up this haunting picture with its implausibly specific details, there was my uncle, Chiel Roth, whose death was registered as occurring at 9:45 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1942, due to “bronchopneumonia.”
Finally, there was my Uncle Chanina, my father’s brother. Though he had arrived in Auschwitz together with the others, he somehow survived even the death march following the evacuation of the camp ahead of the advancing Soviet army. He arrived in Mauthausen on Feb. 16, 1945 and died there on Feb. 25, 1945 at 7:10 a.m. Cause of death: “sepsis phlegmon on the right upper arm”.
The other six members of my immediate family were listed by the International Tracing Service as having arrived at Auschwitz, but there are no records of their death. Presumably, they were dispatched in the gas chambers upon arrival.
I have long wondered about the meticulous death records that I have for my father and three uncles, one of which was recorded in February 1945 when the war’s end was clearly visible to most observers, and in particular, to the near vanquished. The almost fanatical “need” of the Nazis to keep such records for those inmates who were not immediately murdered, while at the same time trying to hide even from their own people evidence of their horrendous crimes, is almost incomprehensible. It remains a haunting enigma for me to this day.
Still, when I first confronted what I thought were especially “lame” causes of death in the surreal world of the camp, I naively considered these to be crude euphemisms for masking the deeds of their perpetrators. I suspected that some weeks heart attacks would be the central cause of death, while in others, it would be strokes, or typhus or a host of different things.
Morbid reality set in when I remembered what my mother had relayed to me years before I had obtained such detailed information about my family. I hadn’t realized then the full import of what she said. After the war, a survivor of Auschwitz told her that he had witnessed my Uncle Shlomo’s death in February of 1943 when he was in a labour detail with a Polish inmate.
It seems that my uncle told the Pole that the Germans were going to “lose the war,” and the fellow then reported this to a German officer. My uncle was subsequently brought to a large tub of water and his head was dunked in and held in place until he collapsed. Then he was pulled out, revived, and the process was repeated – dunk, collapse, revive, dunk, collapse, revive – until he was dead.
It is difficult to describe the additional horror I felt when I finally comprehended the macabre, recorded cause of death – “pleuropneumonia.” A dictionary definition notes that the “pleural membranes enclose a fluid filled space surrounding the lungs,” while pleuropneumonia is “a combined inflammation of the pleura and lungs.”
I suspect as well that in their grotesquely imaginative and unfathomably evil minds, the “medical scribes” of the Nazis were fully aware that the term pleuropneumonia also describes an “acute febrile respiratory disorder of cattle.”
Eli Honig taught physics at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for 31 years, and for longer than that at the University of Toronto, where he continues to teach part time.