Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

“Your Mother Went Up in the Smoke”: A Sad Short Story From Auschwitz

The pebbles crushed the soil below as they crunched under my feet while I walked along the dirt road past the many barracks where Jewish people from the Theresienstadt concentration camp — which was also known as the Theresienstadt ghetto — were held at the former concentration camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Your Mother Went Up in the Smoke”: A Sad Short Story From Auschwitz

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

The wooden barracks stood as they had for decades: bleak, barren and bone-chilling, concealing myriad tales of horror which would otherwise be revealed if they could talk.

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Threatening storm clouds were forming towards the southwest, angry and foreboding the ominous inclement weather which was to inevitably arrive.

I spotted an open door to one of the barracks, in front of which a man in his early twenties was slow to leave the building, his face troubled and filled with emotion. Curiosity compelled me to wander inside.

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Dozens of people were inside, circled around a focal point which was not in my line of sight. They were so tightly packed together that I could not get any closer. Dead silence filled the cold, stale air inside this barrack — save for the lone, frail voice of a woman seated in a wheelchair, imparting memories of a distant past.

“…and the girl was reunited with the sister she had not seen in years,” she said in English with the comforting aura of a grandmother, punctuated by a thick German or Polish accent. I expected the woman — who must have been at least 90 years of age — to speak in Yiddish at any moment about what apparently was a story which occurred during what is now known as the Holocaust.

“I do not understand,” she continued with her story, her audience mesmerized — and enveloping me as well. “Why are you crying? You reunited with your sister. You should be happy.”

Although the young girl was happy to see her sister again, she was searching for her mother, the woman recounted. “I kept searching and searching for my mother, asking one person after another, trying to find out what happened to her. Finally, I found a man and asked him about my mother and what happened to her.”

She said that the man looked at her and paused before pointing to a smokestack. “Your mother went up in the smoke,” she said that the man somberly told her.

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Visiting this concentration camp was difficult enough; but after I heard that, I lost it. I am typically not an emotional person; but I had to turn towards a corner with tears streaming down my face. I do not believe there was a dry eye inside that barrack at that moment, if the plethora of sighs, moans and gasps of disbelief and horror which I heard fill the room were any indication. Meanwhile — difficult as it was — I slowly regained control of my own emotions. Even now — as I type this article — my eyes are welled up with tears.

As I was leaving the building, I heard her say that “They did what the Germans told them to do” in an attempt to somehow rationalize what had happened and why — why thousands of Jewish people succumbed to the unfair and unreasonable commands of supporters and defenders of the Nazi regime and allowed themselves to be herded like cattle to slaughter instead of fought back with a vengeance…

…as if their lives depended on it — which their lives literally did. Never again.

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

While I was leaving the building, a flood of thoughts flashed in rapid succession through my mind as the sun miraculously peeked, poking a hole through the clouds.

I recalled how I felt when I explored Dachau alone on that cold, gray early November morning; the cold rusting barbed wire starkly contrasting the sky and the empty buildings standing hollow in the wind.

I recalled when I was young and remembering the six numbers tattooed forever on each of the arms of both my older cousin — now deceased — and his wife. I recalled how the wife told me that she and a few other people were on the line for the “showers” — read gas chambers — and somehow snuck over to the work line without getting caught, which was a daring move that literally saved their lives. I believe that this occurred at Auschwitz; but I cannot recall definitively.

I recalled the death of my own mother several years ago and how much I miss her. Terribly. Which is why every year, Mother’s Day is so somber to me. That I have these feelings as an adult only exacerbates to me the story of that poor little girl who lost her mother — mixed tragically with countless other victims of one of the largest mass murders in history — in a plume of smoke.

I recalled how the violence, torture and savagery in the world continues to this day — Allepo in Syria being only one of many examples where thousands of men, women and children were unnecessarily killed in a senseless genocide.

The rocks now squished solemnly underneath my feet as I walked back down what is now the muddy road.

Final Boarding Call

Mother’s Day has almost concluded in North America; and hopefully you had a joyful and pleasant day…

…and if your mother is alive today, please let her know in no uncertain terms how much you love her and how much she means to you.

All photographs ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

    1. Remembering is of the utmost importance, Nadine.

      Soon, there will no longer be any survivors of the Holocaust to personally relate their stories. We must do all that we can to keep their memories alive so that atrocities at that magnitude will happen Never Again

  1. Truly a heart wrenching story. I visited Dachau in the 90’s on a cloudy, bleak rainy day during April. It made the experience so surreal with the almost eerie silence. I will never forget thinking that I could almost smell death there. It does have an emotional effect. Thanks for sharing and sorry about your Mom.

    1. Thank you, Scott. I truly appreciate your thoughts — especially pertaining to my mother.

      I would rather lose my mother than the other way around — have her lose me. I cannot imagine a parent losing a child.

      Please feel free to comment further on your experience in Dachau, if you are willing to share…

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for this post. Not an easy read but a vital one if our world is going to move forwards and not backwards. Thanks for the meaningful and appropriately haunting photos too.

    This is not the first time I have heard the expression “your mother went up in smoke.” We have a Holocaust Memorial here in Portland, Oregon, and one of the survivors who was interviewed when the memorial wall was in its design phase recounted that a German guard answered a child’s plea for her mama by pointing to the smoke from a chimney and saying “See that smoke? Your parents are there” or words to that effect. I have a feeling that such words were probably heard often in the camps.

    If any of your readers would like more info on our memorial, check it out here:

    I also visited Auschwitz recently. Readers who are interested in another essay with personal impressions from visiting a concentration camp can find my journal entry describing that visit here:
    The same thread also includes journal entries describing other WW2 sites from our month long Eastern Europe trip.

    PS – Brian, If I shouldn’t have included these links, my apologies. Feel free to delete everything after the second paragraph. Thanks again for your post.

    1. Not include those links, ES? Not on my watch. Not only are the links included; but I encourage readers of The Gate to please click on them.

      Thank you so much for posting your comment. I really appreciate it.

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