- Jun 2023
un allarme aereo
Air raid sirens were a common occurrence in Monowitz from the summer of 1944. Air raids gave prisoners a chance to escape, to meet and speak to fellow prisoners, to steal food, to gain some respite from their labours and the torment of the Kapos. Some prisoners welcomed the air raids as a sign that the Third Reich was obviously nearing its end. The air raids also frightened their tormentors, the SS guards.
There were large scale air attacks by the US Air Force against the I. G. Farben synthetic oil plant in Monowitz on 20 August, 3 September, 18 December and 26 December 1944, and on 19 January 1945, the day after the beginning of the evacuation of the camp. During the raid of 20 August, seventy-five prisoners were killed and a hundred and fifty injured; on 3 September, three hundred people, including SS and prisoners, were killed or injured. The high number of prisoner casualties was in part due to I. G. Farben employees forbidding prisoners to take cover in makeshift shelters.
Passò una SS in bicicletta
This sentence suggests Sunday afternoon bicycle rides and walks with family in bourgeois pre-war Germany. Levi’s subsequent use of the SS man’s first name in the next sentence (‘È Rudi’) also suggests a relatively relaxed atmosphere, as if Levi sees a friend on that Sunday afternoon ride or walk.
The picture painted of a quant Sunday afternoon bicycle ride is highly ironic. By 1943, Germany was struggling to keep its armed forces and economy operating. There was a serious lack of fuel for the vehicles of the Wehrmacht and the factories of the Third Reich. Resort was made to the use of the horse and bicycle for transport, wood gas for powering automobiles, and, above all, there was rationing. Synthetic oil production was seen as an alternative to overcome the lack of access to natural resources, including oil. I. G. Farben, the giant German chemical conglomerate, took the decision in 1941 to build a synthetic oil plant at the village of Monowitz, near Auschwitz, utilising the slave labour from the Auschwitz camps and the local abundance of coal and water. As the war progressed and the fuel shortage worsened, the importance of the synthetic oil plant at Auschwitz surged. This was visible in the increasing number of Auschwitz prisoners assigned to work at the I. G. Farben plant, and the creation of a Monowitz sub camp of Auschwitz in 1942 and, subsequently, an independent camp, Auschwitz III–Monowitz in 1943. By 1944, ten thousand Auschwitz prisoners were housed at the concentration camp Auschwitz III–Monowitz, working solely for I. G. Farben.
‘Rudi’ is riding his bike as there is little petrol for vehicles, even for the SS and the concentration camps, and even at the plant supposedly producing synthetic oil.