Like you, dear reader, I am an animal. A four-legged, even-toed ungulate. A pig, to be precise. But I wasn’t always one.
Born in Poland in 1920 and brought up in a loving, secular Jewish family of free thinkers who did not believe in organised religion, I always dreamt of becoming a professor. And so, at the University of Warsaw, I studied Philosophy, for, as young as fourteen, I was always fascinated with the matters of existence. Though my mother came from an orthodox Jewish family, my father was an atheist. Religion had little influence on my upbringing.
When the Germans attacked Poland in 1939, I was finally confronted with the question of existence face to face. My existence, that of my family and the rest of Poland. In war, lives are lost –innocent or otherwise.
Determined to live another day, my family, along with a few neighbours and their young children, left our home town and, for five days, walked our way to Lodz(1). We stayed there, living each day with fear…and hunger. Our chance of survival was very slim, being at the hands of corrupted souls whose unwavering loyalty towards their leader was undeniably strong. We were punished and made to suffer for a crime we didn’t commit. For the Germans, we were not “German” enough. Just because they decided that we were different from them. And you wouldn’t really counter that notion especially when they had machine guns and you only had your father’s scalpels.
In February 1940, the Jews of Lodz were rounded up and made to wear the star of David on our outer clothing. To those who are not acquainted with it, it is a six-pointed figure of two interlaced equilateral triangles used as a Jewish and Israeli symbol. Two weeks later, we were forced into a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries where food was rationed and people lived in cramped conditions so horrible no sane man would subject a fellow human being to such a condition. Life in the ghettos was unbearable. We were always starving. Those who had money could only buy little food, for Germans didn’t allow big buying. Valuables, those who had them, were traded for whatever meagre food people could get. Others, especially children, were forced to beg or steal to survive. A deliberate starvation, now I reckon, was a vicious strategy.
With broken plumbing system, human waste and garbage thrown on the street, the condition at the ghettos was a perfect breeding ground for contagious diseases that spread rapidly. The cold weather added to our miserable condition. Thousands succumbed to death. Starvation, illnesses, and cold claimed people’s lives before the Nazis could.
Although suffering and death were all around us, children did not stop playing with toys that they brought into the ghetto with them. Some even became creative and made playing cards out of cigarette boxes. But, at the end of the day, this zest always brought sorrow to us and to the children alike, for there was only little hope that tomorrow’s sunrise wouldn’t be our last.
One morning, the authorities came to take some of us to a work camp. My father was one of them. But for some reason, he managed to escape. In consequence, my mother and two sisters were transported to another camp. I was taken as my father’s replacement and made to work as a cleaner at a laboratory. That day was the last I saw them.
As if the manner of how Germans treated the Jews wasn’t evil enough, there in the lab, monstrosity of man was even more transparently displayed as Nazi physicians and their assistants experimented on live human beings. Their subjects were mostly Jews and prisoners of war. Even disabled Germans weren’t spared from these barbaric experimentations designed to advance the Nazi racial ideology. At one section of the lab where human blood painted its floors vermilion, humans were exposed to extreme weather conditions. They, too, were subjected to all kinds of injuries; various drugs were injected into their bodies. Soldiers who could face the harshest weather of Europe and were more tolerant to pain were of crucial importance in winning the war. Imagine my horror one mid-noon when one subject got out of the room. Naked, disoriented, blood oozing from various cuts on his body, he lumbered through the hall one arm hurling at me as if asking for help; begging to end his tormented existence. I’m sorry was all I could muster before his whole body convulsed, collapsing to the floor that I had just finished cleaning.
The horror I saw, the screams I heard were more than enough to wish for one’s death. My hunger, a consequence of having not eaten a proper meal since the war broke, paled to the intense agony that these people endured. To perish would have been the best. I wouldn’t hesitate to end my own life if, by great misfortune, I would become one of their subjects.
Many times, while going to and coming back from work, I acquainted myself with every possible way there was to plan for my escape, but escape was almost impossible. An attempt could either mean a slow or a quick death. And I had not lost all hope to risk even a minute chance.
After work, I used to sit in my bunk, trying not to think. I found it helpful not to think. But my questioning mind wouldn’t just rest, no matter how tired it had been. Men who couldn’t find the courage to terminate their own lives, as there were a few cases of suicide in the ghettos, were slowly disappearing. Taken. Never to be seen ever again. And I couldn’t help but think that one day it would be my turn to disappear. Forever.
If sleep could soothe my jaded mind and body or if there was a way to lay dormant without being bothered by the trepidation surrounding me, I would have taken it already. My body longed for sleep, but my brain refused to rest.
I was about to lie down, hoping that my mind would give in to my body’s wishes when an unfamiliar face came to occupy the empty bed in front of me. He appeared friendly so it was easy to start a conversation with him. I was always fond of a stimulating conversation. And one at that time was certainly called for.
He introduced himself as Primo Levi. Like me, he was bullied in school for being a Jew. But I could make out that he was a bright young man, and was extremely interested in chemistry. He was working as an assistant in a pharmaceutical industry producing synthetic rubber. Once he related that a Nazi soldier hit him with his rifle for sharing his food with another person.
“The Nazis are trying to dehumanize us all,” he said.
As our conversation deepened, he admitted that he entered the Lager(2) as a non-believer, that his experience of it with its ghastly immorality is an affirmation of his non-belief. It has stopped him from forming an idea of an almighty power or supernatural redemption. Even then, he confessed that, once, only once, he was driven to take comfort in prayer. For one moment he had the desire to submit his soul to a fantastical god. But, even in the depths of his turmoil, he remained to his mind. Simple propriety prevailed in the end and he accepted the random chaos of existence.
“One does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these circumstances would have been not only absurd but blasphemous, obscene,” he said.
So he rejected the temptation and thought that if he were to survive, he would have to be ashamed of what he prayed for.
“If I were to survive, someone else would have died. What kind of god would grant someone’s prayer and not the other’s? Were all not worthy to be saved?” he added.
I couldn’t find any words to say back to him. If there was indeed a loving and powerful being, none of these would have happened in the first place. Silence was all I could contribute.
All of a sudden, we heard someone praying loudly. From his bunk on the top row, Primo’s head turned towards the corner of the dimly-lit room. I followed it. With his beret on his head, I saw old Ivan swaying backwards and forwards violently.
“Ivan is thanking God because he had not been chosen,” Primo informed.
I had an idea of what he was talking about, but I still asked anyway, “Chosen for what?”
Instead of giving me a direct answer, he told me that the old man must be out of his mind not to see the nineteen-year-old Otto lying next to him with a dull and empty stare knowing very well that the day after tomorrow he’s going to the gas chamber. He wondered how Ivan was unable to see that soon, it will be his turn to be executed. What really made Primo Levi distressed was the inability of the old man to see that the events unfolding before their eyes are blotched in the face of mankind that cannot be erased through all eternity. No amount of penance by the offenders, no power of forgiveness by the victims, nothing at all on earth or in heaven can ever wipe clean again.
“If I was God, I would spit at Ivan’s prayer.” He finished and fell silent.
Primo’s incisive incidental remarks on Ivan’s action were probably beyond the old man’s ken but they did something important to me. They strengthened my own non-belief.
Despite my tribulations, I maintained a piquancy for life. While my stomach was hungry, my brain wasn’t. And I had Primo Levi to thank for that.
Soon, Levi and other inmates were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to Monowitz. Ivan and I, among other few, were loaded on to similar trucks headed towards another camp. They didn’t tell us where. We were only told and promised, that it would just be another work camp and that, at the end of the week, we would meet our families. This announcement somehow made me hopeful. Could my father still be alive and reunited with the rest of my family? Ivan couldn’t hide the glitters in his eyes. But a fraction of me was unwilling to believe those words.
Like goods that could be offloaded immediately on arrival, hundreds of us were ‘unloaded’ from cattle trucks in haste. We were told that we needed to be ‘disinfected’ and to do that, a ‘shower’ was required. Since a few of us already knew the gas chamber, terror was instantly drawn on people’s faces. The guards ordered us to remove our clothes and to enter the ‘shower’ room with raised arms. I could literally smell fear in the air. And we had the right reason to be frightened. A couple attempted to escape. They were shot right away. Old Ivan clung to me like a child to his father when horrified. He was trembling…weeping. He didn’t want to die. None of us did. His prayer failed him.
At that moment, my mind was rapidly assessing the quickest way to die. Being shot right through the head seemed instantaneous but I immediately dismissed the option. I had seen enough blood of others that to spill my own was not appealing. So I acknowledged death by the gas chamber, consoling myself that if I’d die, minutes from now, I’d die with the only family I had for the last couple of months. Old Ivan would certainly appreciate my company.
Ivan and I were among the ones to enter last. As soon as the door closed, the room became the darkest place any one of us had ever been in. Seconds later, smoke shrouded the entire room. Panic-stricken, many scratched the walls; some banged the door. Women and children screamed for help; wailed and cried their heart out. Praying, Ivan remained firm on his belief in the Divine even to the very end. My lack of it taught me to face the fact that our end had come; that no help was coming –godsend or otherwise. I tried not to breathe the air for as long as I could. My mistake. Soon, I could hear thuds here and there. Bodies falling at my feet. Then I felt a sting in my chest. It felt like my heart was being twisted. The pain was beyond endurance. Finally, I hugged Ivan who was gasping for air. That was all I could give to him. I believed that was all I needed as well.
Sixty seconds –that’s all it took to hold on to my last breath.
Dawn. It must be dawn. It isn’t totally dark as night but my eyes are open and I can’t see anything. I feel heavy. Or rather, there is something heavy on top of me. I squirm until I manage to push something aside. I crawl, crawl harder away from all the weight that is on me; from what looks like a pit and then I am free.
When I reach the top, I look back down only to be horrified. Piles of dead bodies fill the pit. Then I remember it all.
Gas chamber, chest aching, gasping for air, death. But I am alive! How?
Then I see it. As if it is my first time, I marvell at the sun peeking over the horizon; a cool breeze brushes against my skin sending chills all around my bo–
I realize the change in the landscape around me. Watery mud, corrals, and…pigs. Lots of them. Hundreds of…us. How it happened, I can’t explain.
I have never believed in it but Hindus have an explanation for the state I am in. They call it reincarnation. And if indeed this is a reincarnation, what terrible sins have I committed to receive such enormous magnitude of suffering twice in my lifetime! I appear to have been kicked out of the frying pan into the fire. It is like my life at the ghetto all over again. Only this time, I expect the worst, for, in a world where kindness and compassion are human-centred, the life of a pig is short.
Still unable to discern the turn of events in my life, I just stand there, at loss for words. Watching the likes of me wallowing around in a big puddle of mud, I remember that Jews find pigs unclean. What an irony. I myself failed to question its absurdity before. And now I am getting a taste of my own medicine. With interest accrued over generations, I am paying for my ancestors’ wrongdoings as well.
I want to join the group and feel how it is like to bathe in mud. Assuming I have plenty of time, I decide to do it later. Food is all I need at that moment. Strange, I can’t find any. Maybe it’s a little bit early, I think. So I walk around, greeting each and every one I come across. They look at me as if I am demented.
“That’s what probably happens when we eat the same thing every day for six months,” a teenage pig comments.
The others just laugh. I don’t respond. Six months old is bad news in a pig world.
Not thinking so much about it, I resume my walk and arrive at a tin-sheeted building where I hear squeals that become screams the closer I get to it. I peek through a small hole and see a baby pig in the air; his testicles being removed. There are seven others after him. On the right are lines of metal enclosure. Each is occupied by a gestating sow. The enclosure is so small I doubt it if the mother sow can even turn around. Even the piglets will have no space to play. Being a male, I compare my life to theirs and I can’t decide which is worse.
I survey the place further. It stinks. The sows and their piglets are literally lying in their own waste. Where else will they go in such tiny cages? And humans declare us unclean. What arrogance!
Still within the corralled premises, I move to the adjacent building. Its door is slightly ajar. There, I am exposed to the limitless capacity of human beings to inflict abominable things to other beings. Inside are a boar, a sow, and three men. One man, after dropping something into a small bottle’s opening, attaches a tube to it before approaching a sow that is held by two other people, one grabbing the tail up. The man with the bottle inserts this tube into the sow’s body. Am I witnessing a rape?
The following day, I do the same routine and I see the same heinous activities. It seems like rape is a common occurrence in this place, I think.
When I return to the pack, an 18-wheeler, double-decked truck is parked right at the entrance of the corral. Four men in boots and aprons gather us in groups; two keep prodding our butt with an electric prod urging us to move quickly towards the truck’s ramp. Unmoved, my mind goes back to1944, reminiscing the past. My nose is hammered for it. It hurts terribly.
Crammed inside, everything feels like a rerun of what happened to me at the ghetto. Unlike the cattle truck that carried us to the gas chamber, this truck is fully enclosed. Only its sidings have holes, which are so small not even our noses can fit in one.
Before long, the once empty truck has now become crowded. There are hundreds of us, probably a thousand in that one truck. We hardly have any room to move around. Our heads are literally on top of another’s body just so that we can take a breath of air.
Soon, the truck starts and, though I know, the rest have no idea where we are headed. With no place to find comfort, with no food and water available, and not knowing what’s ahead, all I can see are sad green eyes, worried pale-blue ones, and terrified brown ones. I just stand there, powerless and hopeless.
An hour or so later, with no way to cool off, the heat becomes intolerable. Our mouths begin foaming. I think I am crying inside and wishing for an instant death. But, are we not dead already? From the moment pigs are born, aren’t their days numbered? Would it even matter if we had experienced life…even in such a short span…only for it to be taken against our will? I can only sigh.
At a bend, the truck slows down. People holding placards and policemen in their dark blue uniforms fill the street. The moment the truck halts, a few men and women approach us with water bottles in their hands. Those that are on the sidings of the truck are lucky enough to receive water and quench their thirst no matter how little. In my second life, this is the first time I ever experience kindness from a human being.
I want to drink more water but a policeman snatches the bottle from my mouth. It drops and rolls on the road. Water wasted. The woman tries to pick it up but another policewoman prevents her. She then handcuffs her and takes her to a police car. I can never imagine how kindness became a crime in this period of time.
The truck, once again, starts, leaving the kind people in tears. They may want to act for our release, but what can their voices and placards do compared to the guns that protect an enormous facility and all the people in it? All hope is lost.
Our transport finally stops. The door opens and all those that can stand and walk use the ramp for the last time. The ill, the injured –those that they call ‘downers’, are kicked, are struck with electric prods, and are dragged off the truck. Had the victims been humans, the sick and the injured would have been treated in hospitals; protests demanding justice would reverberate in the streets; perpetrators would have been arrested and jailed. But my unwell and wounded brothers and sisters are non-humans. And in the eyes of humankind, they are just damaged goods. Unsafe. Useless. Unworthy of treatment. Do not deserve justice. Only their flesh is good enough to be exchanged for money in the name of food. Murdered for cash, devoured for pleasure.
From the truck, we go to a place called lairage(3) where we are fed and given water. I call it our last supper. There we rest for a couple of hours. Then we move to the V race(4) where I join with my brothers and sisters for the final time.
Up ahead is the slaughter hall. It isn’t that far. Although no one of us can see the activities inside, we can hear squeals, screams, and splashes of liquid. Pigs are not dumb, contrary to popular belief, not to realize what is going on. The life that we deem precious and valuable is nearing its end. And we don’t have a choice in the matter.
Suddenly, it is my turn. And now, as I stand here in line, I can’t help but draw a connection to what I’d been through with the Nazis until this very last moment, awaiting my slaughter. For the pigs, humans are the Nazis. And for the first time, I am tempted. Not to seek refuge in prayer but tempted to make this plea:
Life of a pig is a tragedy every day. In the few days that I’d been with my kind, not one of us could fathom the idea that being born is a crime punishable by death. With a body and heart of a pig and a brain that thinks like humans, I appeal to humankind that not one life, after mine, will ever be taken away against one’s own will. I request, with earnest desire, that this time, you’ll not let my plea fail.
As I leave you with these words, it is sixty seconds all over again.
1 Lodz -third-largest city in Poland and a former industrial centre
2 Lager -abbreviation for “konzentrationslager” or concentration camp
3 Lairage -a place where animals are provided rest before slaughter; where animals are fed
4 V Race -is the pathway that connects lairage with the slaughter hall; its length can be up to 36 m