“Racconta anche per noi!” “Racconta!” “Tell our story!”
Edith Bruck is a Hungarian-born writer who lives in Italy. Her new book “Il pane perduto” (“The Lost Bread”) is one of the candidates for the 2021 Premio Strega, the most important Italian literary award.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Edith Bruck, when you were a child your family was suddenly taken to Auschwitz from your native village in Hungary. How do you describe this new book “Il pane perduto”, “The Lost Bread”?
I wrote a lot of books about Auschwitz, and about today and yesterday and tomorrow. Then I had one moment when I lost my memory. I didn’t know what a computer was. In panic I asked the woman who lives with me: How to write? How to write? I absolutely cannot live without memory. For me that is dying. Afraid that I had lost my memory, I started to write a new book immediately. I tried write as if I was flying over my life, from childhood until today.
“The Lost Bread” is a memoir, an autobiography?
Yes. Not only a memoir, but also a history. Not only an autobiography, because it doesn’t only consider what happened to me. It is the story of what happened to humanity.
From 1942 they persecuted the Hungarian Jews and my village became very anti-Semitic. Fascist propaganda poisoned the people and for two years we suffered. My father was in the army, but they had sent him home saying they didn’t want a Jew in the army. He was deeply depressed and we had a difficult life from ‘42 to ‘44.
What happened when the Nazis came into your house and you were all taken away? Why is your book called “The Lost Bread”?
My mother was making bread with flour that a neighbour – who was not Jewish – had given us for the bread after Pesach (Passover). At 5 in the morning on the last day of Pesach the Hungarian gendarmes and fascists broke down our door and forced entry. It was terrible. My mother started to cry for the lost bread: the bread, the bread! She put all her horror into the bread, because it was almost ready to put in the oven and she cried for the bread because it was very important, for her and for us, to have the bread at home. She put all her pain into the bread. She loved the bread, and all the time from the village to the ghetto and from the ghetto to Auschwitz she cried out for the bread. We didn’t know where we would end up, absolutely did not know our destiny, and she cried all the time for the bread: bread, bread, bread! For this reason I titled the book “The Lost Bread”.
“We absolutely have to never forget what they did to me and to the Jewish people.”
Edith Bruck, your family was taken on a terrible journey to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Your parents were killed there but somehow you survived, along with one of your sisters?
I was 13 years old in the ghetto. When we arrived in Auschwitz, they made the selection immediately, in one moment. I had lost contact with my sister, my brother, my father, everyone else, and I went on the left hand side with my mother. One of the German soldiers said to me, very slowly: “Go on the right. Go on the right.” I didn’t know that left was for the crematory immediately and right was for work. Later I found my sister, and we were together all the time in six very different camps. She helped me a lot. We lived one for the other and so we were saved. Without her I would have died and never have come back.
Why so many different camps?
Because at the end, in the last times, the Nazis wanted to kill as many more people as possible. The American, Canadian and English liberation had almost come, and they put us, everyone, very far from the liberation. From Auschwitz we went to Dachau; from Dachau they took us to Bergen-Belsen. But Bergen-Belsen was close to liberation and so we made a long march of death, more than five hundred kilometers on foot, to Christianstadt. After five weeks, they sent us back to Bergen-Belsen. Always walking. Yes, walking. Out of thousands only 20 or 30 of us remained alive. When we arrived back at Bergen-Belsen it was completely full of dead and dying people. They made us put all the dying people in a kind of pyramid. These people said to me, “If you survive, you have to speak. And also for us.” And I said OK, but I didn’t know who they were. They were completely naked. The last words they said were: “Tell! Yes, tell also for us!” “Racconta anche per noi!” “Tell our story.”
Were the other camps as bad as Auschwitz?
Auschwitz was for selection, extermination, scientific examination. There was no work in Auschwitz, they just killed people. Dachau, Landsberg and Christianstadt were work camps, but Auschwitz was not a work camp. It was for extermination.
You and your sister must have been very strong to survive?
We had a very difficult life when we were at home so we were used to working and to being strong. Poor Jewish people had more defenses than the middle class. The men were also very weak and died much more than the women. They had always been looked after by their mothers and sisters. The women were much stronger. I worked in a kitchen at Dachau and it was terrible to see the situation of the men. When I gave two potatoes they did not have the strength to pick up even one. They were without force, without energy.
After this horrible experience you and your sister went to Israel. You were quickly and unhappily married, but why didn’t you stay in Israel?
Israel was very difficult at that time. Growing up in Hungary with nothing to eat my mother would say, “One day we will go to our country, to Israel, to Palestine. They will greet us with open arms and we will be happy.” I slept with these dreams, but when I arrived Israel was only three months old. It was no time to receive people with open arms. Israel was not yet a country. I was expecting something that in reality didn’t exist.
Were you able to talk about what had happened to you?
Neither in Hungary nor in Israel did people want to know about Auschwitz. We were very weak. We came from Auschwitz, but the Israelis were strong and supple and ready to fight for the country. I couldn’t stay because I didn’t see my future. I was not strong enough and there was not yet a country. There was still war and terrorists.
What do you feel about Israel today?
It’s very tragic, very sad. Israel is always at war. Three or four generations have grown up with hate. I don’t know what to do but I don’t think it can go on in this way.
Do you have family there?
Yes, the son of my sister who survived with me is in Israel with his family and children. Deborah, the other daughter of my sister, is here with me in Italy.
You couldn’t speak about what had happened but could you write about it?
I started to write because I was full of words. I just couldn’t keep that poison inside, so I started to write and I never stopped. I started to write in Italian, and the Italian language saved me. The Hungarian language is full of bad and painful remembering but the Italian language is a kind of Chinese wall that gave me freedom.
To make a living you worked in a smart hairdresser in Rome where you met famous actors and actresses?
Yes all the stars of Hollywood were there, Mastroianni. I had a very happy life, working from nine in the morning till eleven at night. When I met my husband, the poet and cinema director Nelo Risi, he told me to quit but I said we need money to pay the rent. He never understood what money is. He didn’t care about it. At that time he made a documentary film about the Rosselli brothers. The producer was Giovanni Pirelli and when I said he should ask Giovanni for money he said, No, I don’t ask, I won’t ask. He was an aristocratic person inside and also detested money because he grew up in a bourgeois family. His father was a doctor and his mother translated Goethe, and he was almost ashamed to have some pay. It was different for me, because I came from poverty.
You became a successful author and wrote for cinema and TV. The President of Italy has received you and Pope Francis came to visit you in your apartment. Was that amazing?
Yes, really incredible. The Pope read a very long interview with me in L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of the Vatican City, and said to its director that he would like to know this lady. When he said he would bring Señora Buck to him, the Pope said, “No you are mistaken. I would like to go to her, not her to come to me.” He arrived just after 4 on the afternoon of 20 February. We didn’t understand if this was reality or a dream or what. When I went to open the door, it became a kind of reality that I didn’t believe till the last minute. When I saw him, this white figure at the door, I started to cry. I don’t know why, but he touched me very much. He was very warm. He is an incredible human being, you feel his humanity. I was still crying when he came inside.
What did you speak about?
He told me what he said in Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, asking for forgiveness for what had been done to the Jewish people in general. After that he said he is very grateful for what I do, going into schools In Italy for sixty years to testify, taking the memory of the Shoah into schools. We also spoke about today, about the new anti-Semitism and racism and the new oppressed people.
Had he read your book?
He read and remembered my book. He asked me what it meant when the cook in Dachau had asked my name, when I was absolutely nothing, just a number. I was eleven thousand eight hundred fifty two. I didn’t believe my ears when he asked my name and said I have a little child like you and put his hand in his pocket and gave me a small piadine. The Pope said exactly the same thing to me and he imitated the cook. He put his hand in his pocket, took it out with absolutely nothing in it and made a motion to give it to me. It was surreal. There was nothing in his hand, but it was very poetic and very, very nice. He remembered all the little gestures in the concentration camps that had enabled me to survive, without which I would never have come back. This cook; a soldier that gave me a little jam; the other one who didn’t shoot me; and another one who gave me a very worn glove. That kind of gesture was very important in the concentration camp, signifying that life is good. It meant it was a good world. It was humanity, representing all the positive things. These very little gestures were very small things, but very important for me. Rare, absolutely very rare. From the first soldier who saved me when I arrived; and the Pope remembered all that.
“I am pregnant with Auschwitz and the baby has never been born.”
Edith Bruck, did you ever meet Primo Levi?
Yes, I was very close with Primo.
His extraordinary book, “If This Is a Man”, is the story of his own experience in Auschwitz. But after the war for you, Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel and others wasn’t it very difficult to publish your books?
Primo told me that if he could find a publisher for “If This Is a Man” he would never go back to his chemistry work. They said no, because it was not yet time to publish this kind of book. The world was suffering everywhere. They thought that their suffering was like our suffering, that we all had to live through the same things. But it was not the same. When we came back from the concentration camps, no one wanted to hear us. No one.
What is Primo’s closing story?
I was very close to Primo from 1970 till the last days of his life in April 1987. He called me four days before he committed suicide and told me that there was no hope, no nothing. He was sitting in the bed with his blind mother and writing what his mother said, and I said, You will write the best book in your life, don’t speak like that. And he told me there is no more hope, there was more hope in Auschwitz than today. He was very shocked when they voted for Negazionisti (also called denialism). He was totally, very, very, very depressed. He had not allowed himself to live, to see colours, to be, to see the light, to feel the sun. He was closed, like a statue, and it was very difficult for him to open himself for life. He became traumatized. He was very sad about everything. When he came to my home he looked at a table for half an hour as if he wanted to enter in the table. I said what are you looking for? I liked him very much. We were very close to each other. When he killed himself, I knew it after half an hour from his brother-in-law who was my friend, married to Anna Maria the sister. I was eating at the table and stood up and screamed that now I could also kill myself, because Primo allowed himself to kill himself and he was known everywhere, was translated everywhere. His voice was very, very important for the world. He had no right to suicide himself because he belonged, we belong to this story in some way, and our life is not only ours. He still was young enough. He had to live till the last moment in his life. My husband was afraid of what I might do. I never in my life thought to kill myself but I was very sad and I said, if he can do it, I can do it also.
What is the reaction of children when you bring your memories to their schools? Through different generations of students is there a change? How does what you say impact them?
The impact is always very positive. Maybe they need to listen and hear what someone else says, because at home they don’t speak about it. They are very attentive, very serious, and they say I will never be anti-Semitic, never be a fascist. They need to know, and the trouble is history doesn’t teach them. They write me a lot of incredible letters, some 16 years old, or 20. You have no idea what they can write aged 16 or 18 years. I have always had a very, very positive response from students everywhere at all levels. Only once in Rome five students said they wanted to leave and listen to music and I said, I speak about the fact that my mother was burnt in the crematorium and you want to listen to music. If you don’t care about that, you can go. Of 500 students five went out. It was important that 495 remained. Sometimes I don’t sleep in the night before I go, but when I came out of the schools I feel good. Their listening repays me.
Edith Bruck’s new work “Il Pane Perduto” is published by La nave di Teseo
The Quirinale honors writer and poet Edith Bruck. The Italian President Sergio Mattarella bestowing on her the honor of Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
Edith Bruck’s “Who Loves You Like This” is translated from the Italian by Thomas Kelso and published by Paul Dry Books
Edith Bruck at her desk
Edith Bruck’s “Letter to My Mother” is translated by Brenda Webster and Gabriella Romani, and published by The Modern Language Association of America
Edith Bruck as a child in Hungary
“The children need to know, and the trouble is history doesn’t teach them.”
Edith Bruck, you were born Hungarian. How do you feel about the fact that there is again a kind of fascist regime in Hungary?
Hungary is very painful. I am terrified to go back there. Now there is Orbán and I never went back in the last thirty years, only before. Anti-Semitism in Hungary has never stopped. Never, never. When I went back I could hear in the street “Stinking Jews” or something like that, but after my meetings with the Pope and President Mattarella all the newspapers woke up. Some days they have the courage to write on the front page what they didn’t write before the Pope and Mattarella.
Anti-Semitism exists everywhere. Whenever there is a problem with Israel is it also a good excuse for anti-Semitism?
People don’t differentiate between the Jews in the world and Israel. The trouble is that the Jew is never a singular person. When Israel does something all the Jews in the world are guilty. You cannot be a single person with your own opinion, because they always judge all Jews together. Anti-Semitism is not rare. It’s there in all the world. In Europe it is everywhere, not only in Hungary, because there is anti-Semitism in France and in Italy. I said this to the Pope and he said, yes, it is very, very old and the roots were never taken out. And it’s really always like this. I don’t think anything has changed. And with Israel it is still more.
You are a woman of long experience. Do you still remember what happened like a nightmare?
It is not a nightmare. It is present every day. Until the last day of my life, I will remember everything, every day. It is not a nightmare. It is a reality for me. This is forever. It is an experience that is inside, in you and your mind and your heart and everywhere. It is you. I have said that I am pregnant with Auschwitz and the baby has never been born. I think it is right like this. We must be like this. We absolutely have to never forget what they did to me and to the Jewish people.
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