blind fierce ache of life
A great city opened out before the travelers.
Its western outskirts were lost in the mist. The
dark smoke from the distant factory chimneys
blended with the damp to form a low haze over
the checkered pattern of the barrack huts; there
was something surprising in the contrast between the mist and the angular geometry of the
streets of barracks.
To the northeast there was a dark red glow
in the sky; it was as though the damp autumn
sky had somehow become red-hot. Sometimes a slow, creeping flame escaped from this
The travelers emerged into a spacious square.
In the middle of this square were several dozen
people on a wooden bandstand like in a public
park. They were the members of a band, each of
them as different from one another as their instruments. Some of them looked around at the
approaching column. Then a gray-haired man
in a colorful cloak called out, and they reached
for their instruments. There was a burst of something like cheeky, timid birdsong and the air—
air that had been torn apart by the barbed wire
and the howl of sirens, that stank of oily fumes
and garbage—was filled with music. It was like
a warm summer cloudburst ignited by the sun,
flashing as it crashed down to earth.
People in camps, people in prisons, people
who have escaped from prison, people going
to their death, know the extraordinary power
of music. No one else can experience music in
quite the same way.
What music resurrects in the soul of a man
about to die is neither hope nor thought but
simply the blind, heartbreaking miracle of life
itself. A sob passed down the column. Every-
thing seemed transformed, everything had come
together; everything scattered and fragmented—
home, peace, the journey, the rumble of wheels,
thirst, terror, the city rising out of the mist, the
wan red dawn—fused together, not into a mem-
ory or a picture but into the blind, fierce ache of
life itself. Here, in the glow of the gas ovens, peo-
ple knew that life was more than happiness—it
was also grief. And freedom was both painful and
difficult; it was life itself.
Music had the power to express the last
turmoil of a soul in whose blind depths every
experience, every moment of joy and grief, had
fused with this misty morning, this glow hanging over their heads. Or perhaps it wasn’t like
that at all. Perhaps music was just the key to a
man’s feelings, not what filled him at this terrible moment, but the key that unlocked his
In the same way, a child’s song can appear
to make an old man cry. But it isn’t the song
itself he cries over; the song is simply a key to
something in his soul.
As the column slowly formed into a half
circle around the square, a cream-colored car
drove through the camp gates. An SS officer in
spectacles and a fur-collared greatcoat got out
and made an impatient gesture; the conductor,
who had been watching him, let his hands fall
with what seemed like a gesture of despair, and
the music broke off.
A number of voices shouted, “Halt.” The
officer walked down the ranks; sometimes he
pointed at people, and the guard called them
out. He looked them over casually while the
guard asked in a quiet voice—so as not to dis-
turb his thoughts: “Age? Occupation?”
Thirty people altogether were picked out.
Then there was another command: “Doc-
No one responded.
“Doctors, surgeons, come forward!”
The officer walked back to his car. He had
lost interest in the thousands of people in the
The chosen were formed up into ranks of
five and wheeled around toward the banner on
Songs have immunity from death.
—Ovid, c. 10 BC