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September 2, 2012

“Brief Encounter With a Hero, Name Unknown” a poem about the Josef Shillinger story

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 12:06 pm

I was doing some research on the Josef Shillinger story this morning when I came across a website featuring University of Utah Professor Jacqueline Osherow, who wrote a poem entitled Brief Encounter with a Hero, Name Unknown.

I am pretty sure that the Hero, Name Unknown is not Josef Schillinger, but rather the woman who shot him.

Jacqueline Osherow has written several books.  One of her books, published in 1994, is entitled Conversations with Survivors.

This quote about the book is from the website:

[Osherow] expanded more into her traditional background in Judaism, from the Yiddish language to the Holocaust. “I was introduced far too young,” Osherow says of the Holocaust. “It was such a gigantic overwhelming presence.” Osherow recalls at age 7 admitting to her mother the reason she refused to take showers: She feared that gas would come out of the showerhead.

A grown Osherow wasn’t seeking accounts, but her then-husband’s entire family survived the Holocaust. This included his stepmother, Fany, who wanted her memories documented. The result was “Conversations With Survivors,” a poem recalling Fany’s experience during the Holocaust and in present day.

“Brief Encounter With a Hero, Name Unknown,” a poem from her third book, With a Moon in Transit (1996), is one of her most acclaimed. Osherow tells how the poem took shape: She asked her father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor in charge of delousing at Birkenau (an extermination camp annex of Auschwitz, the Nazi’s largest concentration camp), if he knew any of the SS. He told the story of Josef Schillinger, an SS officer. In the tale, a woman brought to the gas chamber grabs Schillinger’s gun, killing him and three other guards before being gunned down herself. The story haunted Osherow until she wrote the poem. Since then, “Brief Encounter” has taken on a life of its own.

Last year, Susan Gubar released Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew, in which she discusses “Brief Encounter.”

Osherow was stunned—and incredibly thrilled—to discover the story had a history beyond her father-in-law’s account. Merely searching online, Osherow found various accounts of the incident: It occurred in October 1943, and the woman was most likely a Polish dancer named Franceska Mann.

“My mind exploded,” Osherow recalls, still astonished. “I thought it was something that only existed in my father-in-law’s head and my head. Suddenly, there was external proof.” It also lends insight to the way Osherow writes poetry: It’s about conversations, stories and experiences, not historic research.

Note that Osherow’s father-in-law was in charge of delousing at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The main place where delousing was done was at “the central Sauna” which you can read about on this page of my website.

I previously blogged about the death of Schillinger here.  This is a fascinating story, which must be true, since there are so many versions of it. I first heard the story when I visited the Memorial Site of the Bergen-Belsen camp.  Franceska Mann was an exchange prisoner at Belsen before she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be gassed.  I wrote about her on this page of my website.

One of the Sonderkommando prisoners at Birkenau was Zalmen Gradowski, who participated in the revolt of prisoners at Krema IV, the gas chamber that is close to the Central Sauna at Birkenau.  Gradowski wrote a statement which he buried at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Included in his message was his version of the death of Josef Schillinger.

Here is what Gradowski wrote about the famous incident when Shillinger was shot:

The second incident was… that of the “Warsaw convoy”. They were from Warsaw who had taken American citizenship; some of them had been born in America. They were supposed to be transferred to an internment camp in Germany then eventually to Switzerland where they would be placed in the care of the Red Cross.

But instead of doing so, the great and “civilized” powers-that-be had them brought to the crematoria here. It was at this point that a heroic young woman, a dancer, committed an act of great bravery. Seizing the revolver of Kwakernak, the head of the camp’s political section, she used it to shoot Schillinger, a notoriously nasty character. Her act inspired the other brave women with her, who launched bottles and other missiles at those savage, rabid animals, the uniformed SS.