Book Review: The Wedding in Auschwitz, by Erich Hackl
More than just a wartime love story, The Wedding in Auschwitz is an emotive memoir of tested humanity and temporary alleviation
Love and Life Under Duress
At first glance, The Wedding in Auschwitz could be just another wartime romance novel. The title – and indeed the accolade the typically adorns mass market paperbacks – allude to yet another cheap melodrama. But upon closer inspection, the reader comes to understand that Auschwitz is much more than this. With the use of complex narrative that layers the voices of eyewitnesses into a tapestry portrait of the time, the voices of the central characters finally emerge, glowing to life like a lifting dawn in a brief and quiet reminder of the power of human caring amidst the mindless horror of war.
Based on the true story of Rudi Friemel and Margarita Ferrer Friemel, the book is a memoir, told through the reminiscences of dozens of people who had once known them, and even some who hadn’t. The basics are straightforward enough: Rudi, a socialist activist, flees Austria after the Nazis take power, and ends up fighting in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. There he meets Margarita, the weak-willed eldest daughter of a Republican supporter. They fall for each other instantly, but upon returning to Austria, Rudi is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Then, through a rare act of grace, Margarita is allowed to travel to the dreaded death camp and marry her love.
What makes this more than a simple wartime love story is the power of the voice, a kind of resonance of retrospective observations that gives a portrait of the time seen through the long experience of the years that followed. Author Erich Hackl, born in 1954 in Steyr, Austria, builds his narrative around the memories of family, friends and even fleeting acquaintances. Events from the lovers’ lives are recreated based on what witnesses saw with their own eyes, or in some cases speculated about based on less direct evidence from their own experiences. The book gives a personal and very human insight into history, not only of Austria, but of all occupied Europe, revealed in the heart-breaking confessions of these fellow travelers.
The book’s opening sets the scene with a contribution by Margarita’s sister, Marina Ferrer, who describes a dream in which she encounters Rudi, having "a white face, as if made of wax…wearing thin striped trousers that hide the frostbite, and a white shirt embroidered with roses." In the dream, he speaks to her: "All of them have forgotten me, women, friends, comrades." She expresses deep feelings for her brother-in-law, whom she had been close to before he was "foolish enough to run into enemy’s hands." This recklessness foreshadows the actions that result in his future imprisonment in Auschwitz. Marina tells of him being "a good lad, a car mechanic, mad about motorbikes. A committed socialist… a daredevil, foolhardy, ready for adventure."
From there, the author exposes the reader to his own precarious search for those who remember Rudi Freimel. "I don’t know any Rudolf Freimel. I can’t know every Freimel, can I?" asserts one woman, alluding to the difficulties in tracing the story of one man in history. "Friemel or Frieml. Or Frimmel? Spain, France, Poland? Look, I’m not a travel agency." From people who have no idea who he was, to people who barely remember he ever existed, the author leads us to the people who were his comrades ("he was a good man…a ladies’ man"), his opponents ("He played cat and mouse with me. But sooner or later every one gets caught in the trap"), and finally to his son – "He was my father. I hardly knew him."
In this way Hackl slowly introduces us Rudi, allowing for poignant character development through the confessions of others. The author never poses a question, but gives us many answers. So, before even boarding the train to Auschwitz – from the title we are aware of our final destination – we pose our own simple questions: Do we know who Rudolf Freimel was? And if not, who are we to believe? Sometimes the stories are consistent, sometimes contradictory.
The second part of the book begins the same way. However, this time Hackl allows the storytellers to set Freimel’s tale in its historical context, depicting the broader picture of horror under the Nazis. The wedding comes later, only in the last third of the book. But his intention is to give just a glimpse of the camp early on, leaving us to wonder. Many readers no longer have extensive knowledge of World War II, and at times the detail verges on too much. However, on the whole, these history lessons, conveyed through personal accounts, are far more emotive and vivid than an academic study. Reading it, we live it through the narrators.
Through these stories, the reader learns of Rudi’s socialist leanings and his membership in the Social Democratic Schuztbund (Militia), and becomes acquainted with his first wife, with whom he has a son Norbert, also one of the storytellers. We come to understand his need to flee the country, first to Czechoslovakia and then to Spain where he joins the fight against Francisco Franco and his Nationalists. We also meet the heroine, Margarita, living in Barcelona with her family. Margarita is "timid, unsure of herself, very feminine," tells Marina, "she left every decision to others." She even attempts to take her own life several times. As a child Margarita is unstable, while Marina remains the complete opposite, always taking on the role of older sister even though she is a year younger. In short, Margarita is weak.
Here the book slows down, allowing us to come closer to the characters, and in a deeply touching section, to come to understand all those who suffered, not only under the Nazis, but also fascist Spain.
Still, until this point, it is not entirely convincing. Until Margarita and Rudi themselves appear, it all feels close to fantasy; all the memories, with all those contradictions, could have been made up. But then suddenly, out of the blue, we hear Margarita describing her own wedding, her emotions when she enters the Hell of Auschwitz where her husband is being held. In her words, you can hear the tears in her eyes.
"Finally he hugged me very tightly: ‘be strong, little woman,’ he whispered, turned abruptly away and walked back into the camp."
The next sentence jumps off the page "I still had in my mind the picture of the twelve Poles who had been hanged in July 1934," said one of the other prisoners. It is the extension of personal suffering to the suffering of a nation.
The momentary lull of intimacy, of caring, vanishes in the renewed horror. There lies the secret of the success of the piece – the author’s ability to shock, to surprise us into a recognition that in a world of constant danger there is still the possibility of love.
So at the end, the reader is there with Margarita and Rudi, standing at the side of the SS officer. The groom, a dark haired man in a white shirt and black trousers; the bride in a black suit, with curly hair and heartrending expression on her face; and a child, a boy standing between them. Others stand around, some frightened, one with a dimple in their chins.
The wedding is a proof that they are still alive. For two hours, Auschwitz will turn into place of hope – the smell of the blood from the piles of dead bodies thrown in a ditch on the other side of the yard is replaced with the luring smell of the bouquet of flowers the bride is holding.
Suddenly the death curtain falls again, the smiling faces covered with blood. Like them, I look down for a second and notice my frostbitten fingers… I feel pain… I jump out of my bed, the book falls of my chest.
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