Presumably, many people who become leading physicists - for example, Felix Weinberg, who was professor of combustion physics and a fellow of the Royal Society - display an early curiosity about the material world. As a teenager, Weinberg experimented with explosives: specifically, a Nazi anti-tank bazooka that he found in a pile of abandoned weapons at Buchenwald. No one stopped him because this experiment occurred during a strange “Wild West” interregnum between the collapse of the Reich and the beginning of a restoration of order by the Allies. He was in Buchenwald because he had been a prisoner there - so sick, he was expected to die just after its liberation. He came there by way of Theresienstadt, then Auschwitz-Birkenau, then Blechhammer, a work camp, and then a frightful death march. Setting off the Panzerfaust to see if it was “rocket- propelled” or “fired by a charge in the tube”, Weinberg came close to killing himself but, luckily, suffered no major harm. Having survived the worst places in the world, such a death would have been, at the least, incongruous.
“Most people,” Weinberg writes, “know what it’s like to have a horrific nightmare and the relief of waking to reality.” But, he adds, few “can imagine the converse: waking from wonderful dreams of happy childhood to the nightmare of reality”. His own childhood, in Prague before the Second World War, was very happy: he names it his “Golden Years”. But as the international situation worsened, his father moved to England to create a new home in safety for his family. The war interrupted this plan and stranded his wife and children in occupied Czechoslovakia. In December 1942 they were sent to Theresienstadt: they gave some keepsakes, including a family album, to one Mr Perlhaefter, a Jew who, married to a Gentile, had not (yet) been deported. These pictures survive and fill the first part of the book. It has become fashionable to include photographs, often without provenance, the detritus of history, in works of fiction. The photographs here (Weinberg calls them his most cherished possessions) are unfashionable but heartfelt representations of his family’s past.
From Theresienstadt the family were deported to the Family Camp in Auschwitz. In addition to describing the horrors there, often with a humorous distance, Weinberg unusually (for it was taboo for a long time) discusses the sexual abuse of inmates. Young and fit, and lying about his age, Weinberg fared better than many, and eventually “graduated to slave labourer”. He was sent to a new camp and never saw his mother or brother again. As Germany collapsed, he and others were forced on to a horrific death march from the East to Buchenwald, and the testimony recounts his slow dying by degrees: “Under such conditions, death is not a discontinuity but a more gradual process.” He survived by what he sees as lucky accidents. After repatriation to Czechoslovakia, he managed to get permission to enter the UK, where he was reunited with his father.
Holocaust testimonies give witness to the destruction of families, communities and nations, and in that, Boy 30529 is no different, despite its gentle and sometimes dark humour. However, it also describes the rebuilding of Weinberg’s own self, his relationship with his father, renewed after seven terrible years. Without arrogance, but with certainty, it recounts Weinberg’s post-war education, his tolerant beliefs about education and the world. He died in 2012, a respected physicist and member of the survivor community. In some testimonies, post-war life seems only a dream and the camps seem the true reality. This is not the impression here, in which the camps seem like nightmares and Weinberg’s life, surrounded by the love of others and love of his subject, seems the most real.
Boy 30529: A Memoir
By Felix Weinberg
Verso, 192pp, £12.99
Published 9 May 2013