Available in English for the first time, Joaquim Amat-Piniella's searing Catalan novel, K.L. Reich, is a central work of testimonial literature of the Nazi concentration camps. Begun immediately after Amat-Piniella's liberation in 1945, the book is based on his own four-year internment at Mauthausen. 'When the war is over, remember all this. Remember me,' implores one of the book's characters on his deathbed, and it is this call to bear witness that Amat-Piniella takes up in his account of the Spanish Republican fighters who were exiled in France at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and soon swept up into the German concentration camp system. As an already organized anti-fascist army, they played an important role as a nucleus of resistance within the camps, and their story is little known to English-language readers. Because of the length of his internment, his decision to write his book as fiction, and his staggering powers of observation and recollection, Amat-Piniella's portrayal of life in the camps is unmatched in scope and detail. It is also a compelling study of three powerful ideological movements at work at the time: anarchism, communism, and fascism, all within the desperate and brutal world of the camps. 'My book does not seek to deepen wounds or differences, but to unite people before cruelty,' said Amat-Piniella. This is an essential text as we ponder the twentieth century and its meaning to us today. This edition includes a new preface, annotations, and a translators' note.
Joaquim Amat-Piniella (1913-1974) was born in Manresa, Catalonia. In 1936, he enrolled as a volunteer in the Republican Army to fight against the fascists. In 1939 he went into exile in France. After being captured by the Germans he was sent to Mauthausen on January 27, 1941. He returned to Catalonia in 1948.
It was a biting cold. No need to pinch oneself awake. Toes jammed for three days in damp boots and dirty socks surrendered without resistance to the frozen ground. Without its honed edge, the dawn might have seemed unreal to those hundreds of men, shaken from their sleep. Through fog that thickened as the day dawned, nothing but the loom of the surrounding landscape could be made out. Diffused light from the snow seeped into the early morning. A thick pillow, smooth and undulating, covered the steep roof of the station. The railcars, immobile on their invisible tracks, looked like rows of gigantic corpses abandoned under the drifts. On the other side of the road, on which the new arrivals were struggling into a ragged line, rose the sheer cut of the scarred hillside.1
They wore the motley "uniforms" of the French Army: some sky-blue (from the First World War), others dark-blue, still others khaki, with belled coats, and on their heads they wore berets, two-pointed caps, balaclavas, and even the red caps of the Senegalese.2 They milled about, anxious and confused, in a vortex of panic, each trying to find a place, among the suitcases, bags and bundles, in the wavering line. The snow churned under their hobnailed boots, its pure white ground into the muddy road, while only the clink-clink of their army dishes, their tin cups and water bottles tied to packs and suitcases, broke the dawn silence. In contrast to that same silence came the guttural and terrifying commands of soldiers in the green uniform of the German Army, who, with their rifles at the ready, their fingers on the triggers, cordoned off that mass of prisoners. New voices, foreign, full of hidden menace to men who did not know the language.
-And the overnight case? -one of the prisoners asked his companion.
-Didn't you bring it?
Emili rolled his eyes and, under his balaclava, smiled fatalistically.
-Then you might as well give up on having anything to wash your face with, -he said, hefting his heavy knapsack from the ground.
-They'll have soap. Don't worry about it.
-What worries me, Cisco,3 is we won't be needing it. I don't like the look of this.
-Like it or not, we'll have to lump it. We'll soon see what's up.
Francesc looked at his friend's red nose, which stood out even in the thin light, and tried to catch his eye. He smiled. He knew Emili's tendency to see the dark side of things. True, the treatment when they got down off the train had been rough, surprisingly rough, but he didn't want to jump to conclusions. He preferred to think that the guards had only been annoyed at having to get up so early, or at the cold, or at the foul temper of the officer in charge.
-Germans aren't barbarians, -a lieutenant had said to him when he took him prisoner-. We've got a great sense of comradeship. You'll see.
And it was true, in the prisoner-of-war camp from which they'd come the Spaniards had been well treated, even with a kind of deference. The fact of their having fought in a war, their industriousness, the quaintness of their habits in German eyes, these were all probably reasons. But why then, as they got down from the train after a three days' journey, had this new type of German appeared, so different from the one they'd come to know? Why the blows from rifle butts, why the kicks and the beatings, the shouting, the threats? Everyone would have got off the train just the same, without the big rush, and the line could have been formed more easily, maybe, and with less confusion and fear.
-They must be getting trashed up at the front -someone suggested.
Emili piled up his luggage and prepared to wait patiently until the recount was finished. He had never trusted the Nazis, despite the sheep's clothing they put on in the occupied countries. It always smelled like a ruse. The brutality here confirmed it. "Why didn't I get away when I could?" he asked himself bitterly. It was clear now how stupid he'd been to ignore a fellow prisoner's advice when he'd suggested they escape together. He shrugged his shoulders in resignation but couldn't shake off a depressing sense of foreboding. There behind the fog a terrible secret lay waiting.
The forming up was taking forever. Etched against the thickening fog, the dense black line of prisoners could be made out, marked at exact intervals by green-grey smudges, the carefully placed sentries, their rifles cocked.
-Atención ! -somebody yelled,- Atención!4
The silence deepened. An interpreter was speaking, the one who'd already taken charge at the prisoner-of-war camp.
-The commander of the unit responsible for our custody wants us to form up well and quickly. The slower we go, the colder we get. Follow the orders; you can see this is no joke.
At the prisoner-of-war camp the roll call had never added up. One escapee more or less never seemed to matter very much. The officer would sign off on the report from the prisoner in charge without any fuss. Here things had changed and nobody knew why. One after the other the officers, junior officers, sergeants and even common soldiers made their separate counts. When they arrived at the end of the column they would compare results and, not having reached an agreement as to the exact figure, would immediately start the count all over again.
Even more astonishing than this grotesque operation was the "language" the guards used with those who, out of line or distracted, obstructed their task. When they met with an interruption such as this, they would repeat out loud the number they had reached, so as to remember it, and then strike out randomly with their fists to right and left.
Once the counting was finally done, the column had a hard time to get moving. They'd spent three days without sleep, without hot food, and the cold climbed up their legs and closed like a vice. Some were jumping up and down or stamping their feet. Others blew into their hands to warm them, or swung their arms, slapping themselves vigorously on the back. A boy close to the two friends in line dared to light up a cigarette. A guard started yelling at him from his surveillance post:
-Put it out -said Emili- He's talking to you, you idiot.
But one of the sergeants was on top of him before the boy even had a chance to pretend ignorance, and with a punch to the face he made blood spout from his nose. Emili caught a glimpse of the officer's collar.
-Did you see -he asked when the sergeant had gone- We're in the hands of the SS.
The camp too was sunk in that morning's fog, a fog that ate away at the faint green of the Blocks. A single storey built of wood, long and narrow, and ranged in rows on terraces cut into the hillside, the Blocks hovered like a shadow at this hour of the morning. Their chimneys, two to a Block, spewed the thick black smoke of coal just lit, and it dispersed little by little into the heavy fog.
In the dining room5 of Block 13, August, the Spanish interpreter, was helping with the cleaning duties that had been assigned to a group of boys: cleaning the windows, dusting the cupboards and the tables, sweeping up, making the metal buckets shine .
-It's Spaniards coming in today, -said August-. Fifteen hundred of them.
The Stubendienste6 stopped for a moment. That they were Spanish was no surprise, but the number seemed extraordinary.
-Fifteen hundred! -said the boy holding the broom-. A good batch for baking in the crematorium!
-Shut up! Maybe you've got a brother with them -said the one cleaning the windows.
-What do you want me to do, cry about it? Every day they come, and they all walk the same road. Besides, I don't have any brothers.
-Then stop mouthing off.
August let them argue. He abandoned the closet he'd been cleaning, even though it wasn't his job, and sat down on the edge of a nearby table, his legs dangling. His eyes didn't have the resigned, empty look that marked the gaze of most of the prisoners. He was the interpreter of Block 13,7 and if the small measure of security this position afforded him was not enough, he was also a man who knew how to go at things with the spirit of an adventurer. An adventurer who had always had luck on his side. Of a very Mediterranean temperament, a rebel by nature, free of the prejudices of his well-to-do family, he'd lived a life of complete independence from a young age: his father's money was there waiting for him while he spent his time doing as he pleased. And what good times they'd been! Calling himself an anarchist, sporting a beard and sandals, sometimes a vegetarian, all just for effect; running away from home to be a pianist in a cabaret for a lark; entering the trenches in the very first days of the Civil War and distinguishing himself in one of the International Brigades8 by voicing such extreme opposition to the communists that he got himself condemned to death, now that was really something. For this latest performance, he was now going to spend some time in a Nazi extermination camp. If he'd always managed to get out of trouble before, why not...