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PERSPECTIVES ON THE HOLOCAUST IN CURRENT LITERATURE
by ALVIN H. ROSENFELD
Jean Amery, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Ill pp. $12.50
Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939. Boston: David R. Godinc Publishers, 1980. 148 pp. $10.00
Wieslaw Kielar, Anus Mundi: 1,500 Days in AuschwitzIBirkenau. New York: Times Books, 1980. 312 pp. $14.95
D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel. New York: The Viking Press, 198 1. 244 pp. $12.95
BY NOW, WITH MORE than 100,000 copies in print, D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel is a widely read, widely celebrated novel. It has been praised for its narrative ambition, its dramatic inventiveness and virtuosity, its many pages of finely rendered, lyrical prose. The praise is understandable, for this is a strongly felt, intricately written book. Many consider it an important book--one of the most powerful moments in contemporary fiction," as one reviewer recently put it. Another has compared it to the work of Sophocles and singled it out for being "awesome as only the very highest art can claim to be." For all of these reasons-and taken together they begin to award The White Hotel an exceedingly high stature indeed-the book requires the most careful scrutiny, particularly with regard to the author's elaborate mixing of fact and fiction in developing his narrative.
Thomas's term for this compelling blend of the real and the imagined is "myth," by which he means "a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth." The largest hidden truth in The While Hotel is the one that links sex and death; the myth that explains it, at least initially, is psychoanalysis; and the force that upsets and undermines psychoanalytical explanation is history. Since a sizable part of this novel's ambition is to demythologize Freudian explanations by subjecting them to a brutal encounter with actual events, the extension into history becomes imperative, although, as we shall see, the author's recourse to the historical involves him in the remythologizing of experience, even as he attempts to free it of earlier layers of rationalization and interpretation.
The story that triggers such elaborate tellings and retellings is that of Elizabeth Erdman, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish father and Polish- Catholic mother, whose pains, both physical and mental, constitute the primary focus of the novel. The reader first gets to learn of Elizabeth, or Lisa, as she is more commonly called, through some passing references to her in the book's opening pages, which present an imaginary exchange of letters between Freud and some of his colleagues. In these letters, Lisa is referred to as "a young woman suffering from a severe hysteria," whose writings show her to be the victim of "an extreme of libidinous phantasy combined with an extreme of morbidity." "It is," says Freud, "as if Venus looked in her mirror and saw the face of Medusa." Both faces are prominently portrayed in the novel, which itself is an impressively drawn portrait of the combat between Eros and Thanatos. As Lisa says at one point, "If I'm not thinking about sex, I'm thinking about death. Sometimes both at the same time." Hence Freud's judgment that his patient "was suffering from a severe sexual hysteria," a condition made graphic in her writings.
These writings, in verse and in prose, are the product of an imagination whose intense sexual preoccupations are everywhere shadowed by hallucinations of the most fearful kind. Lisa's sexual phantasies assume the character of pornography coupled with cosmic disaster; not only does the feminine body yield itself endlessly to the pleasures and pains of erotic indulgence, but the sexual activity is accompanied by visions of spectacular ruin brought on by flood, fire, landslide, and fatal accident. Orgasm is everywhere attended by, and seems almost to bring on, a series of catastrophic deaths. Taken together these scenes of apocalyptic violence comprise what Thomas refers to as "the landscape of hysteria. " It is both Lisa's mental landscape and, as the book's later chapters reveal, part of the characteristic landscape of twentieth century history.
To Freud, who analyses Lisa's writings In a case study called "Frau Anna G.," the poor woman is beset by "an inflated imagination that knew no bounds." Through the classic procedures of psychoanalytic investigation, Lisa's sexual problems are minutely dissected and traced back to homosexual tendencies deriving from childhood trauma. Her visual hallucinations, which accompany and interrupt her sexual play, are shown to be screen memories of early, repressed encounters with parental trespasses. And her physical ailments-she suffers from chronic pain in the left breast and pelvic region-are the punishments that the unconscious (that "precise and pedantic symbolist") inflicts upon her as "the price of her freedom from intolerable knowledge." Freud's conclusions about Lisa's difficulties transcend the particular pattern of self-injuring behavior that belongs to the hysteric and begin to confirm his growing sense that the human condition itself involves "a universal struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct"; in this respect Elizabeth's illness does not so much separate her from the rest of us as it exaggerates and highlights the eternal contention between the forces of life and death.
The representation of Elizabeth Erdman as a victim of severe sexual hysteria explainable in analytic terms takes up nearly half of The White Hotel. Much of the remaining half is devoted to upsetting Freudian theory through Elizabeth's belated confession that she has withheld vital information from her analyst and hence intentionally misled him. The effect is to expose the "mythic" or fictive basis of psychoanalysis and seriously to call into question its conclusions. The Freudian method is ingenious and, in its own terms, coherent, but, as the novel seems to say, it is no more than a form of rational control over the elusive soul of man, "which cannot be approached or explored. " This piece of cautionary wisdom, attributed to Heraclitus, is twice quoted in the latter part of the novel and might be taken as a kind of superscript to one of the author's intended conclusions. For, as The White Hotel will take some pains to show, the truth of suffering is such as to transcend all attempts to explain it theoretically. The violence of history, and not psychic violence, is at the heart of the human condition, and the only means to contend with the extremities of human suffering, as the book's final chapters will suggest, is through an extreme assertion of human love.
To make poignant this line of historical and ultimately religious thinking, Thomas redirects his novel in a way unanticipated by (and perhaps not fully justified by) everything that precedes it in the course of its first 200 pages. For nothing about Lisa's story foreshadows her death at Babi Yar, the site of her final suffering. Nevertheless, although her sense of herself as a Jew is at best peripheral, her fate is to be Jewish fate at its most tragic, and her story ends, or almost ends, in an extremity that far surpasses hysterical ravagement.
Thomas's chapter on the Nazi destruction of the Jews at Babi Yar has been lavishly praised by other reviewers and is, like so much else in the novel, well drawn, but a major question about it has to be raised about the place of the Babi Yar material in the novel: is it natural, and does it, in fact, "fit"? My own sense of its inclusion is that nothing about Lisa's story earlier on leads logically or inevitably to Babi Yar. There are several suggestions in the opening chapters that Lisa is clairvoyant, but previsions of the Holocaust are not a very credible part of this novel's progress, and the author's attempts to explain away Freudian elucidations of her pains-only to situate them suprarationally in the context of this century's most extreme instance of historical catastropheseem forced. The Jewish tragedy is an extremely chastening reminder that human suffering transcends our ability to comprehend it, it is true; but to invoke a hundred thousand dead at Babi Yar as the means to delegitimize Freudian theory is to burden this novel with an historical weight far in excess of what it can easily carry. As a result, the narrative is thrown out of proportion, forced as it suddenly is to accommodate a terror infinitely greater than the terrors of a single body or mind. When Lisa is trampled by a Nazi boot in the ravine of mass death, her chronically aching breast and pelvis, however one has understood them previously, are suddenly to be seen as early warning signals that history is about to take a turn into human holocaust. If one result of this revelation is to move the narrative away from the rational control of Freudian explanation, another is to force the reader to endorse a vaguely defined occult mythology that embraces telepathy. This reader, at any rate, had a hard time doing that and in general found it difficult to follow out Lisa's fate to its final end at Babi Yar, an end that in too many ways seems unprepared for and gratuitous.
Another difficulty raised by this section of The White Hotel, at least for readers familiar with the broader literature of the Holocaust, results from the author's use of primary sources, in this case specifically A. Anatoli's Babi Yar. * Thomas acknowledges his debt to this book on the copyright page of the novel, the customary way of putting to rest any questions of propriety that might arise; nevertheless, I have rarely before encountered so total a reliance on a previous literary source as here. Of course Thomas could have no firsthand knowledge of the crimes at Babi Yar and understandably had to fall back upon source material to gather his information, but his chapter is so heavily derivative as to call into question the sufficiency of his acknowledgment. For Thomas has taken from Anatoli's Babi Yar not only many of the key names and episodes of his historical recreation but in numerous instances has carried over into the prose of The White Hotel whole passages of description virtually verbatim. Here are some examples by way of illustration.
The point of reproducing these parallel passages-and numerous others similar to them could be cited-is both to emphasize the highly derivative character of this section of The White Hotel and to begin to question what Thomas was trying to accomplish in writing it. just what is the place of this chapter in the larger scheme of the novel, and how does it clarify the character of Elizabeth Erdman as we have come to know it up to the point of the Babi Yar massacres? While the genesis of imaginative literature is always something of a mystery, it is clear in this instance that Thomas must have been powerfully moved by the story of Dina Pronicheva (in Anatoli's book) and modeled his own Lisa largely on her. But to what end? Why has he seen fit to rely so heavily on the earlier author's account even to the point of carrying over whole sections of it into his own writing?
These questions can be answered, if at all, not so much by recognizing the similarities between Lisa's fate and Dina's, as by noting the one or two major differences in their stories, differences that distinguish history from myth. Dina Pronicheva is said by Anatoll to be the only eyewitness survivor of Babi Yar; Lisa is made to be one of its innumerable victims. But apart from this crucial fact, what really distinguishes the actual survivor from the fictive victim is that, in the moment before her death in the ravine, Thomas forces Lisa to undergo a horribly cruel rape by a sadistic Ukrainian guard, who uses his bayonet to penetrate her, whereas there is no mention in Anatoli's account that Dina Pronicheva ever was violated in such a brutal and obscene way. At this point, Thomas has departed from his source and is freely inventing, in order, I imagine, to bring to a high point the morbid sexual phantasies of the earlier part of his novel.
The fictive elaboration of the horrors of the Holocaust is, I am afraid, one more glaring instance of the literary imagination's perverse attraction to the Nazi atrocities, and one more unfortunate exploitation of the female victims of mass crime. As I have shown elsewhere, the sexual desirability of the mutilated woman is a recurring motif in fiction about the Jewish tragedy and is an almost certain measure of the lack of authenticity of such literature. * Thomas, like others before him, seems to be drawn to the documentary literature of the Holocaust less for historical reasons than to mine it for metaphors of sexual violence. In this instance, what seems to compel Thomas's imagination in Anatoli's recounting of Dina Pronicheva's story is what does not happen-namely, the details of a sexual ravishment that never took place. However, because The White Hotel is not so much concerned with history as it is with myth, Dina's story is "completed," and the needs of an utterly cruel sexual mythology are served through one final, vicious penetration of Lisa. Crushed by an SS boot and assaulted by Ukrainian bayonets, the Jewess goes to her bloody death in what is portrayed as a final paroxysm of passion, her body "jerking back and relaxing, jerking and relaxing." If this is the purpose for which Babi Yar is invoked in the novel, fiction about the Holocaust, a genre whose legitimacy is already being called into question, is bound for increasing disparagement.
In addition, the appeal of such fiction is not helped by the kind of artificial ending Thomas has contrived for The White Hotel. For instead of ending the tragedy of Elizabeth Erdman in the ravine, where, once brought to that point, her story properly ends, Thomas transports her and many of the other dead to a place beyond death vaguely called "The Camp" and vaguely resembling Israel. He has, in other words, given his novel a decidedly Christian ending, invoking as he does not only several of the key New Testament place names and people (Emmaus, Cana, the Jordan River, the fishermen), but also, in an altogether gratuitous coda, the Christian love ethic: "I think wherever there is love, of any kind, there is hope of salvation .... Wherever there is love in the heart." These words, supposedly spoken by a resurrected Elizabeth, are little more than a sentimentalism, have no logical place in the novel, and can hardly counterbalance the tragedies that precede. Nothing in the previous chapters anticipates them or prepares the reader to accept "salvation" as the likely end point of Lisa's fate. Yet she is made to utter pious words of hope in the book's final pages, including verses from The Song of Songs ("Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it"), which she could hardly be imagined to know, let alone recite. Yet she is said to sing them-at one point even in Hebrew-just as, after her gruesome ordeal in the mass grave, she is referred to romantically and improbably as "the rose of Sharon." Moreover, Lisa learns that her mother, whose death in a hotel fire during an adulterous affair with her uncle is one of the traumatic moments of her childhood, is really not dead at all but has just joined her in "The Camp." "The only important, terrible thing had been the death; and now she knew that didn't apply, for her mother had not died, she had emigrated." The place to which she had "emigrated" is pictured as a paradise for all souls, an Israel of the spirit. In an ecumenical touch that unfortunately calls to mind the popular advertisement for Levy's rye bread, Elizabeth comes to realize that "you did not have to be Jewish to be here," that her Polish-Catholic mother indeed "was on the lists." Given all of these miraculous occurrences (they even include a fatherless birth), one should not wonder that at novel's end Lisa's chronically ailing pelvis and breast cease hurting and she runs off to take up the duties of nurse and aide to new immigrants arriving in this haven beyond the grave. Incongruous and unbelievable as it may seem, the last word of The White Hotel, a novel memorable for its graphic depictions of blood and pain, is "happy."
What can one conclude about this odd and awfully disconcerting conclusion? Only that D.M. Thomas, at book's end, suffered either a loss of judgment or, more likely, a loss of nerve and sought easy recourse in a myth of denial. "Myth" in this sense, though, is much poorer, much less compelling than its heuristic counterpart at the opening of the novel, where it points to "a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth. " The largest hidden truth in The White Hotel, to repeat our earlier sense of the book, is the one that links sex and death. While there is nothing in this novel that necessitates situating this linkage in Babi Yar, once the narrative does carry Lisa there (which is to say, once it begins to simulate history), there is no credible way of escaping the authority of actual events, especially events that trace back so recognizably to a source as prominent and powerful as Anatoli's Babi Yar. Yet escape Thomas does-at first through a mythology of erotic indulgence and then through a mythology of spiritual transcendence of the weakest and most evasive kind. Neither of these ways is capable of uncovering the hidden truth that lies at the heart of this fiction or of revealing anything of consequence about the dread history that underlies it. Fiction in this deflated version of it is little more than make- believe, a poor substitute for the more substantial mental and imaginative work necessary to have brought this novel to a more fitting conclusion.
Anatoli ended his book by stressing the moral responsibility for remembrance, a responsibility made urgent by the evasions and distortions of those who would forget history or, still worse, deny it. "A former high- ranking officer in the Gestapo declared recently in an interview that there had never been any death camps, ovens, or gas chambers, that all such things had been invented by propagandists. He stated, quite simply, that they had never existed." In the years since Anatoli wrote these lines, the Gestapo officer has been joined by a great many others who would also like to undo the Holocaust by wishing away the memory that keeps it alive. "If you tell them out loud, to their faces, that they are being deceived," Anatoli went on, "they won't listen. They will say it is only a malicious slander. And if you produce facts, they just won't believe you. They will say: 'Such things never happened. ' "
Thomas's mode of Christian sublimation is not so blatant a defamation of history as this; nor is it the primary responsibility of novelists to document or otherwise to reinforce the facts of history in their writings; but if they do bring themselves to invoke actual events, and particularly if they do so in a climate of willful denial, it becomes a matter of some importance that their work not contribute to the erosion of historical memory through even the remotest subversion of reality. The death camps, the ovens, and the gas chambers did happen, and in the wake of their tragic happening there are no immediate happy endings possible, in literature any more than in life. Far from conjuring up easy restorations and reconciliations in some fictive paradise beyond, the truth of fiction in such cases must be as severe and unsparing as reality itself was at Bahl Yar. Otherwise there is the chance that Babi Yar and so many other places like it in the mass graveyard that was Nazi-occupied Europe will, in time, appear to be little more than macabre fictions themselves, from which the dead can gain their release by emigrating to a welcoming haven beyond. While that may be a comforting myth for some to entertain, the loss for the future of memory, as well as for the future of fiction, is frightfully high and should encourage restraint on visionary flights of the kind that bring The White Hotel to its optimistic, but improbable, ending.
A contrasting novel, far more implicit than explicit in its assertions, is Aharon Appelfeld's Badenhelm 1939. Originally published in Hebrew in 1975, it has now appeared in America in an English translation by Dalya Bilu. Whereas in The White Hotel the Holocaust is a climactic point to which the story rather suddenly moves, in Badenheim it is the center of historical and imaginative focus and absorbs the narrative wholly, although curiously-and effectively-it does so from behind or to the side of the action and hardly ever directly.
Badenheim is set in an Austrian vacation resort in the spring of 1939. An unremarkable assortment of middle-class Jews on holiday are united by being where they are at a time that is about to become a turning point in history. For soon enough, the "Music Festival city" of Badenheim will become a place of Jewish quarantine, from which the only exit will be via forced transport to Poland. In the period before that fateful moment, though, the summer citizens of Badenheirn will stroll the hotel gardens, visit the city's cafes, sample delicacies at the local pastry shop, engage in outdoor sports, attend cultural events, and prepare for the annual music festival. There is also the usual bickering and bargaining, gossiping and complaining, but with spring in the air and summer about to blossom, it is a moment for holiday diversion and relaxation, for scholarly work and artistic performance, a moment too innocent to last. For as every reader of this novel will recognize, and as virtually every character within it cannot or will not see, 1939 was to mark the beginning of the end for the Jews of all the Badenheims of Europe, an end presaged with unusual subtlety and insight in this book.
The art of Badenheim 1939 is not the kind that most American readers are used to and warrants some special attention. Since Appelfeld's concern is with the prelude to the German catastrophe and not with the full force of its actual occurrence, the author makes virtually no mention of the Nazi atrocities and shows no interest whatever in depicting the brutal treatment to which the Jews were subjected. This is not to suggest that the author, himself a Holocaust survivor, is oblivious to what in fact took place, but that in the present work, at least, his preoccupations are with the Jews' reactions to their impending fate rather than with the actual moment of their destruction. The Holocaust as incipient threat, and not as full- blown horror, is the subject here, and Appelfeld is quite masterful in the way he portrays it.
That way is more common to poetry than to prose and indicates a gift of rhetorical restraint rare among fiction writers who treat the Jewish tragedy under Hitler. Relying on a fine use of imagery, understatement, and indirection, Appelfeld tells his tale in a quiet voice, which accumulates its effects in much the same way that certain kinds of lyric and reflective verse do. The seasons, vividly described in terms of their light and air, their distinctive weather, fruits, and flowers, change slowly but inevitably, and following this natural cycle, events also change, in increments as minimal and yet as moving as those of the best literary ballads and fables. Yet the fabulous is less Appelfeld's concern than history is, although it is history perceived in its most mundane course and not written out in anything close to epic terms. The tragedy behind Appelfeld's tale is real enough but comes on gradually and almost invisibly, hardly allowing most of the novel's characters to pay it the mind it ultimately requires, let alone prepare to defend themselves against it.
This defenselessness is a major part of the story's pathos and sooner or later affects everyone in it. Its sources lie as much in the social habits of daily life as in a certain Jewish incredulity concerning the enemies of the Jews. In Badenhelm, the latter are mere shadow figures, inspectors of the state's "Sanitation Department," who go about their work of identifying their victims, sequestering them, and ultimately preparing them for deportation in ways that are so routine and unremarkable that hardly anyone pays them notice. Rather, the pleasures of life in the holiday resort of Badenhelm are rich enough to distract most people from worry:
Mild, temperate breezes began to blow making everyone feel healthy and restored. Hammocks went up in the gardens and nets in the tennis courts. People took off their winter clothes and put on sport shirts.... They bought everything they could lay their hands on. The cosmetic counter was empty . . . . And in the pastry shop they drank coffee and devoured cakes .... The guests were investing their money in strawberry tarts.
Into this holiday atmosphere, filled with the happy diversions of good weather and good food, the recreations of swimming and tennis, and busy preparations for the gala music festival, terror enters silently and settles in to make its own more deadly preparations. As the town's merchants ready themselves for the business of the season, the inspectors of the "Sanitation Department" begin to measure and chart, list and chronicle, map and record. The scholar's name is noted, as are the mathematician's and the traveling businessman's; the druggist and the druggist's wife, the baker and his assistant, the visiting duchess and the town's resident prostitutes, the musicians, the actors, and the poets, all will enter the lists. Yet what of it? One did not die of having one's name noted on official documents, after all. The "cafes remained open and the band played every night," even as doors closed and, almost unnoticed, walls went up around the town. And yet "the isolation wasn't total. The milkman brought milk in the morning and the fruit truck unloaded its cartons at the hotel. " Life went on, in increasingly restricted circumstances, with small deprivations only beginning to be felt, but not suddenly or harshly different from in the past. In such a way, subtly and almost imperceptibly, the fate of the Jews began to change, even as they, busy with their own affairs and endlessly quarreling over trivia, stubbornly resisted the change.
In the end they would be carried away, but the end did not come all at once or threaten in massive or immediately unbearable ways. The genius of Badenheim lies precisely in its projections of gradual, incipient menace and in its portraits of Jewish reactions to it, which range from ready adjustments on the part of some to slowly unfolding despair on the part of others. The omens that signal the onset of bad times to come are tiny in this book - a pregnant woman's sudden lapse into self-protective silence and sullenness, another's bad dreams, a growing petulance on the part of the musicians, the fragile state of fish in a fishbowl, changes in the color of leaves and the texture of air. Nevertheless, as long as the pool remains open for the swimmers, the cafes for the diners, the streets for the strolling prostitutes, victimization is not a total thing or even, in its first stages, a cause for special concern. As disenfranchisement progresses, however, it becomes clear to all but the most obdurate of Badenheim's citizens that "there was a different quality in the air, a sharp quality that did not come from the local forests .... It seemed that some other time, from some other place, had invaded the town and was silently establishing itself."
Since Appelfeld's art is one of understated and oblique reference, no name is attached to the intrusion of this ancient, malevolent presence, but the author's readers will recognize it soon enough, even as most of the characters in the novel will persist in not seeing it at all. Dr. Pappenheim, the musical impresario of Badenheirn and a large part of the story's presiding intelligence, jokes coyly about a "new Order of Jewish Nobility" being established in their holiday village. Once it becomes clear that they areto be deported, he also expands wittily and with mock exuberance on "the wonderful place to which they were going." But this is all Jewish gallows humor, a canny if ultimately futile defense against impending catastrophe. For the place to which the quarantined Jews of Badenheim are to be sent does have a name-it is Poland -even if, in the year 1939, it is a name that does not yet signify what it soon enough will come to mean.
In this space between the reader's certain knowledge of what is beginning to unfold for the Jews and the latter's own willful blindness to it, Appelfeld's book registers its most powerful effects. It does so in a language that insinuates more than it says, and without any reference to the now familiar codes used to describe the ghettos, camps, ovens, and gas chambers. The beauty of Appelfeld's art lies in its ability to suggest these enormities without ever having to assert them directly. Giorgio Bassani was able to do something similar in The Garden of the Finzi- Continis, but most recent fiction about the Holocaust tends to be drawn to the naked horrors and obscenities of Nazism and relies, often much too readily, on the rhetorical formulae of persecution, degradation, and mass death.
Appelfeld is at odds with this language and its overuse, and his own prose avoids it almost entirely. He need not labor to tell us where the Jews of Badenheim were going when they entered the trains, for everything that precedes their deportation implies their destination. In fact, the more the author delays sending them off and lingers in their moment of preparatory excitement, worry, self-deception, and false cheer, the more it becomes clear just how fateful a journey theirs is to be. Rarely before has the tragic end point of Jewish fate been invoked so clearly and disturbingly and yet in so few words. One takes leave of Badenheim 1939 in much the same way that one comes away from certain finely rendered tone poems, knowing that one has been initiated into and wholly absorbed by a special moment of feeling-in this case, the moment before the trains departed for Poland, the last pause before the end.
While the places where the trains arrive had many names, none is better known to us than Auschwitz. A large literature has accumulated about life and death in that infamous place, much of it written by survivors. This literature is often reflective as well as descriptive and at its best presents not only the details of horror that each and every day brought with it but also a sense of the destructive effects of relentless violence on human self-understanding. In this respect, Elie Wiesel's Night and Primo Levi's If This I's a Man are model books, acts of intellectual and spiritual revaluation as well as of personal witness.
Jean Amery's At the Mind's Limit: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities joins these two volumes as a text that is simply indispensable for anyone who wishes to grasp the deep- est range of negative implications that the name Auschwitz should evoke. The negative must be stressed here, for as Amery shows on virtually every page of his book, it makes little sense to scrutinize the experiences of a Holocaust survivor for anything redemptive. As Amery puts it, "No bridge led from death in Auschwitz to Death in Venice." Auschwitz was destruction without deliverance, a place of inexplicable and implacable hostility against human definition itself. Consequently, a mind that searches the endless tortures of camp life for reasonable explanations of human suffering will dis- cover only its own impotence and ineffectuality and little more. According to Amery, "In the camp the intellect in its totality declared itself to be incompetent .... Beauty: that was an illusion. Knowledge: that turned out to be a game with ideas." In short, the intellect was robbed of its power of transcendence, making the intellectual among the most vulnerable of victims.
The five autobiographical essays that make up At the Mind's Limits, themselves models of intellectual sobriety, lucidity, and rare moral earnestness, drive home this point with exceptional forcefulness. The first essay, from which the book's title is taken, is about "the confrontation of Auschwitz and intellect." As already indicated above, Amery's experience in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, and other camps brought him to the realization that in this confrontation, a preposterously unequal one, all previously held aesthetic notions and analytic capabilities were rendered virtually useless. "The aesthetic view of death had revealed itself to the intellectual as part of an aesthetic mode of life; where the latter had been all but forgotten, the former was nothing but an elegant trifle. In the camp no Tristan music accompanied death, only the roaring of the SS and the Kapos." Similarly, "philosophic declarations also lost their transcendency and then and there became in part objective observations, in part dull chatter. Where they still meant something, they appeared trivial, and where they were not trivial, they no longer meant anything." Hence, spiritually disarmed and intellectually disoriented, "the intellectual faced death defenselessly."
The book's second essay, an unusually vivid piece of exposition, about the genesis and nature of sadistic physical punishment, brings Amery to reflect on the confrontation not with death but with torture. In his understanding, torture was an essential attribute of Nazism and not one of its occasional or peripheral aspects. It defined and brought to a climactic point of realization the basically depraved and destructive character of Nazism, an ideology "that expressly established ... the rule of the antiman ... as a principle." Since the advent of Hitler, other regimes have been contaminated by this same nihilistic principle, but German National Socialism brought it into the twentieth century and gave it a kind of purity. "The Nazis tortured, as did others, because by means of torture they wanted to obtain information important for national policy. But in addition, they tortured with the good conscience of depravity . . . [:] they tortured because they were torturers. " The experience of extreme physical torment recently has received a good deal of attention with the publication of Jacobo Timerman's prison memoir, but the standard for any further reflections on the phenomenology of torture has been set by Amery, whose essay has to be regarded, at least for now, as the definitive statement on its subject.
In the remaining three essays, the author's attention shifts to other matters, all related and all centering in the ordeals Amery underwent during the Holocaust and in its immediate aftermath. "How Much Home Does a Person Need?" is an extended contemplation on problems of exile and homelessness, as much of a spiritual and cultural kind as a physical one. "Resentments" grows out of Amery's return to Germany in the postwar period and registers his worry that in the newfound prosperity and willed amnesia of the reconstructed country, the events of the Third Reich will be forgotten or simply submerged in accounts of the general historical epoch. The volume's concluding essay, "On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew," is a culminating statement and defines in wrenchingly forceful terms a dilemma that is far more than the author's alone-namely, the dilemma of "the Jew without positive determinants, the Catastrophe Jew":
The awareness of the last cataclysm and the legitimate fear of a new one is what it all amounts to. I, who bear both within meand the latter with double weight, since it was only by chance that I escaped the former-am not "traumatized," but rather my spiritual and psychic condition corresponds completely to reality. The consciousness of my being a Holocaust Jew is not an ideology . . . . "Hear, oh Israel" is not my concern. Only a "hear, oh world" wants angrily to break out from within me. The six-digit number on my forearm demands it. That is what the awareness of catastrophe, the dominant force of my existence, requires.
As Amery felt it and lived it, this awareness required as well that he contend with all manifestations of postwar antisemitism, something that he did with increasing frequency in the last years of his life when, particularly among the European Left, antisemitism took the form of ideological hostility to Israel. Although his own Judaism was highly problematic (the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, the author was not raised as a Jew), he was uncompromising in his opposition to those who attacked the Jewish state and he did not hesitate to counterattack: "The pol Itical as well as Jewish Nazi victim, which I was and I am, cannot be silent when under the banner of anti-Zionism the old, wretched antisemitism ventures forth. The impossibility of being a Jew becomes the necessity to be one, and that means: a vehemently protesting Jew."
At The Mind's Limits embodies Jewish protest in ways that no reader concerned with the lingering implications of Auschwitz can avoid and that few will be able to forget. Among expository reflections on the Holocaust, Amery's book must be regarded as an essential text.
Most readers will also be unable to shake off the shattering effects of another recently published Auschwitz memoir-Wieslaw Kielar's Anus Mundi.- 1,500 Days in AuschwitzlBirkenau. Unlike Amery's writing, which is deeply and movingly introspective, Kielar's eschews personal reflection entirely and from beginning to end devotes itself to piling up the details of each day's brutalities. These are presented simply and with seeming objectivity, in a style that is unsparing in its directness. One learns nothing at all about Kielar prior to his incarceration in June 1940 or after his liberation at war's end. His family plays no role in his narrative, nor does his education or occupation. One comes to know that he is a Polish Catholic who occasionally prays, but otherwise the book is without direct religious implication, just as it is without overt philosophical or political interest. In all of these respects, Anus Mundi stands in sharp contrast to the memoirs of Amery, Levi, and Wiesel, which ponder and reflect as much as they record.
To make these distinctions, however, is not so much to call Kielar's book short as to see it for the kind of book it is: one that trains a brilliant camera eye on events as they unfold and leaves to others the tasks of thinking it all through. As a photographer in prose, Kielar will not soon find his match, for the dozens and dozens of camp vignettes that he accumulates are as clearly focused, as sharp and as memorable, as any that have been given us of Auschwitz. The closest comparison would be to Borowski, Kiclar's tragic countryman, whose concentration camp stories are also of a severely laconic and ironic kind. In each case one confronts testimony that convinces by its strict avoidance of sentiment and by its lack of intellectual elaboration or rumination; as a consequence, one does not learn very much of the man who suffered and was there, but there is no doubting the authenticity of the suffering or the look of the place where it occurred. Anus Mundi - "the "shithole of the earth"-this title, with its repulsive yet irreducible exactness, makes graphic to a fault the power of the author's sensory perceptions of his long season in hell.
This season, stretching over more than four incalculably harsh years, brought Kielar little relief from misery, and yet his fate, for all of its deprivations, was relatively "easier" than that of most Jewish prisoners who were sent to Auschwitz. Kielar absorbed more than his share of blows, suffered from the hard winters as much as anyone else, stank and starved, too, much of the time, and was infested with lice and fleas. The brutalities of sadistic Kapos were never far away, nor was the menace of disease. The memoir records the full extent of his suffering and degradation, much of which would have broken a weaker man. At the same time, Kielar reveals that contacts with the civilian world outside of the camp were still possible for him, that he was entitled to receive packages from home, that correspondence with his family took place with a certain regularity, and that he did not live each day in fear of the chimneys. The latter were reserved chiefly for the Jews, most of whom were murdered shortly after arriving in camp; as for those Jews whose lives were initially spared, their lot as a rule was harsher still than that of most of the Polish political prisoners and included none of the "special privileges" still available to an inmate such as Kielar.
Consequently, for all one learns about Auschwitz in reading this book, and that is a very great deal, it becomes necessary to realize that there were qualitatively different orders of experience among the various inmates of the camp. Threats of beatings and whippings were part of the daily torment for all, but the ultimate threat of the gas chambers was directed far less at someone like Kielar than it was at the Jews. The former was brought to Auschwitz as a prisoner and, while inhumanly treated, still might count on outlasting and overcoming the wretchedness of the camp. Most of the latter were marked for mass destruction and, like the vermin with which they were compared, were dispatched to camps in order to be exterminated. To acknowledge this distinction is in no way to detract from the pathos or importance of Kielar's account of his 1,500 days but only to recognize that it is a story that deserves to be read and remembered for its own reasons, which are compelling enough.
"Remembering. That is the cue," writes Amery, and each of the writers reviewed here would agree. As for us, the readers, most would forgo knowing very much about the place to which the trains were sent if we could, but after encountering these books and others like them, a willful ignorance is no longer possible. Nor is it morally responsible. The camps were historical fact and not part of Hitler's or Himmler's imagination. Because they were, they are now part of our imagination and comprise a large part of the burden of contemporary consciousness. Such awareness is neither uplifting nor ennobling-it is simply unavoidable. As Amery concludes, it may even better equip us to recognize reality.