Anders Johansen

Voices from the Palace of Ashes. Writing a young novel about Holocaust.

The ways of inspiration can indeed be intricate and long-term.

I guess I was five or six years old the summer day my mother took me for the usual walk to the nearby meadow, and we – most unusually – found ourselves face to face with a camp that had been set up during the night. Strange people were moving around between the caravans, and I stopped dead, staring at their ragged clothes and heavy gold rings, jet black hair and flashing eyes – so beautiful! Then my mother marched me off, and I felt her fear and repulsion.

That was my first meeting with the Romas – the gypsies – so brief in actual time, but everlasting in my memory.

I must have been twelve the Christmas Eve my uncle, probably under the influence of the red wine, broke his usual silence and told us how he spent Christmas Eve twenty years before, in 1944, in the concentration camp Neungamme to which he had been sent for blowing up railways in occupied Denmark. Because of Christmas, the prisoners – that is, the Aryan ones - were granted five cigarettes each. The handing over of this Christmas gift took place in the camp’s square, the Appelplatz.

Every prisoner was called forward by his number and his identity checked and double-checked and entered in the books, after which he had to step back – with his cigarettes – and stand at attention. The whole procedure took almost two hours, the temperature was minus 15 Celsius, a gale was blowing from the east, and afterwards fourteen prisoners were lying in the snow, frozen to death.

I listened, breathless – so horrible!

That was the first time I heard of the special kind of Nazi cruelty, characterized by its combination of primitivity and systematizing – as Martin Amis put it, the Nazis

“found the core of the reptile brain, and built an Autobahn that went there.”(1)

It took 35 years for those two threads of fascination to meet and intertwine as they do in my trilogy of young novels called Raklo’s Journey, the middle volume of which is set in a concentration camp – “The Palace of Ashes”. (2)

Most of the voices heard in this novel are gypsy voices. The holocaust inflicted on the Romas can be seen as a trial run for the bigger Endlösung to come – on a smaller scale, but of no less zeal and cruelty. And choosing the gypsy angle made it possible for me to put stories from their rich oral tradition into the story, giving a break from the suffering and cruelty – while at the same time accentuating them.

The question that kept nagging me while I wrote the novel was: Can I make the reader imagine? Can I imagine myself?

And of course, in spite of all the books I had read, the answer was no. I could not imagine, not really. And yet I tried as I think we have to try to prevent “Holocaust” from being worn down to a mere cliché, a kind of negative buzzword.


It’s not the blatant cruelties – the whippings, the gassings, the medical experiments – that are the most difficult to imagine and communicate, spectacular as they are in a perverted, Hollywood-usable way. No, its the everyday life in these death camps, the daily and “trivial” aspects of suffering – the hunger, the dirt, the boredom, the lice, the shoes two sizes too small – and the way that even extreme suffering became ordinary that are so hard to imagine. The most disturbing thing to be learned from Robert Jay Lifton’s brilliant book about “The Nazi Doctors” is how most of the tormenters were not monsters, but just ordinary men – like their victims. (3)

Please, listen to the voices of hunger from Baracks 14:

“We are always hungry, always. We are hungry when we sleep, hungry when we work, hungry when we ladle soup down our throats, hungry when we shit it out in the latrine ...

But most of all, we are hungry in the evening, when we have squeezed together in our bunks and the lights are out. The darkness quivers with hunger. Someone will start talking about food and then the whole barracks hops on board, wallowing in fantasies of food until everyone is moaning in tormented delight.

Tonight, it is a Serb who says into the darkness: “I found a shred of meat in my soup”. Not very loudly, but loudly enough for everyone in his block of bunks to hear, and they whisper the news on to others.

The soup is made from turnips and is brought out to us at noon and in the evening in barrels and pots and pails. There is not always enough for everyone, but only the greenhorns try to push their way up to the front. They can go right away! The bits of turnips sink to the bottom; it is a matter of waiting until others have taken the thin, upper portion, but there is still something left of the thicker soup below.

Once or twice a week, half a potato appears in my soup. But meat - ? Never!
The barracks is buzzing.

“How did it taste? I have forgotten what meat tastes like.”
“Don’t you think it must have been rat?”
“Oh, he’s just gaslighting us. There is never meat in the soup!”

And then Djesi says in a slow drawl:

“Right now, I could really go for a mess of birindévo ...”  
“Speak a human language, you miserable chicken thief!”
“He’s going on about blood pudding, blood pudding and pork."

Everywhere in the darkness, hunger finds it voice.


“And thick syrup that sticks to the roof of your mouth –“   
“No, sausages, my friends, fat, grilled sausages. Can you remember the sound of biting into a sausage and the juices squirting into your mouth?"


I am drooling on my pillow, my guts are screaming.


“Shut up about it! It’s enough to make you sick!”


But the avalanche is already in motion and all objections are swept aside.


“Doesn’t it smell a little like roast chicken in here?”
“No, lamb –“
“Give me a hunk with a thick layer of crispy fat on top!”
“You glutton, your mouth is full!”


The darkness prates and moans and smacks its lips. Bodies writhe with hunger. The bunks creak and groan. And somewhere over in the corner, someone begins to laugh. A tinny, joyless laughter that goes on and on –


“Djesi, tell us about the gypsy paradise!”
“Yes, Djesi, tell us!”


And Djesi tells the story – in Serbo-Croatian, so as many as possible can follow along.

Djesi has inherited his grandmother’s talent for storytelling. He describes the three rivers of paradise – one of milk, one of wine, and the third of cream – so we can hear them babbling over the rocks. And the rocks in the stream are not rocks at all, but legs of lamb and whole cheeses, and the pebbles on the bank are eggs ...


“The, we ride around from morning ‘till night on a shiny, groomed stallion. When we are hungry, we take out our golden knives and cut off a chunk of a cliff. In the gypsies’ paradise, the cliffs are made from the crispiest of cornbread. Or we shake a tree and peaches and hams and apples and smoked salmon rain down on us, for these heavenly trees bear all fruits, and the sap flowing in their trunks is honey ...


And the oxen run around with the spits already in their stomachs. In the evening, when we gather around the fire, they roast themselves over the coals, turning all by themselves ... And all you have to do is open your mouth and a piece of roast chicken flies into it ...


And best of all, outside the gates of paradise, the Germans are standing with their stomachs rumbling, listening to us singing and belching. But we won’t let them in, we won’t give them a single bite.”

A joyous shout.


Then the barracks elder, Pavel, thumps on the wall.




The voices die down. But the shrill laughter over in the corner persists.


“Shut up with that laughing!” – “Somebody do something!”


From the day room, Pavel roars: “If it doesn’t settle down in there right this minute, you’ll be standing out in the rain!”


But still, that insane laughter. “Get him to shut up!” – “Grab him, tie a blanket around his trap!”


There is tussling in the corner, heads bump against the ceiling. The laughter becomes a rattle. A strange drumming sound is heard, and then it is quiet.

The next morning, an emaciated shape lies unmoving beneath a blanket, when the disgusting little bed inspector pokes it with a ladle.


We only know that his number was 104287. Nobody knows what his name was, where he came from, or why he was here. Not even his bunkmates have talked to him, only heard that insane laughter.


Is there someone out there in the world who will miss him? Would they cry if they knew he was dead? We don’t know. But his bowl and shoes and a cigarette buck he kept pinched behind his ear are gone when the Body Detail arrives.” (4)


Anders Johansen, Denmark

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008

(1) Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow. 1991.
(2) Raklos rejse 1-3: Jordens skød, Askeslottet. Himmelporten. 1999-2001.
(3) Robert Jay Lifton: The Nazi Doctors. 1986.
(4) Excerpt of Askeslottet/The Palace of Ashes, translated by Russell L. Dees.


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