The Confessions of Josef Baisz
King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust
These are, all three, novels about powerlessness and power. All three prowl about the margins—in time, in place, in morbid psychology—of fascist dictatorship, the mighty ideology of the gutter which promised every derelict that he too could have muscles. If the strong gave forth sweetness, these novels are more interested in the sour poison which is sweated by the weak.
Beryl Bainbridge has written a great deal, with compassion and cunning, about the weak. Sometimes they are women, locked into some male-constructed paddock whose grass is growing thin but whose gate is rusted shut. Sometimes, but much less often, they are men. There is something of the pasha in the gaudy display and bulging bellies and bedroom tyranny of most of Bainbridge’s men, but a few turn out as pathetic as only an aging pasha jostled by infidels can be. All of her novels, in more or less explicit ways, are about an increasingly bewildered and helpless England, the display gone shabby and the belly sagging and the knack of tyranny lost somewhere, a kindly but uncomprehending old country giving up hope of understanding the younger world, suffering some pain now and feeling the cold more.
But in this new, amazing short novel, she has taken up a helplessness that doesn’t finally resign itself. The idea is disconcerting. The young Hitler, escaping from the Vienna doss house, comes to spend a month with his relations in Liverpool. In their grotesque, hand-to-mouth household, he passes a few weeks. Then, as pallid, erratic, and hysterical as he came, he takes the train home again.
There is some basis for this. Hitler’s half-brother Alois lived in Liverpool for a time. He married there, and a baby called Pat was indeed born (he changed his name, and is very possibly living in the United States, a senior citizen, to this day). From time to time, the bar regulars at the Liverpool Press Club pass around the old legend that Adolf Hitler visited the city, presumably some time in the blank space between his departure from the Männerheim in Vienna and his arrival in Munich in 1913. If he did visit England, Hitler certainly never mentioned the fact to anyone afterward. And—more to the point—neither did Alois, who soon abandoned his wife, returned to Berlin, and in the Thirties ran an extremely successful pub there, much frequented by foreign journalists. It’s a Liverpool myth, no more. But myth is now a great part of what Liverpudlians are left to hold on to. Myth, and the railings.
“It being now one hour into Sunday morning and a day of rest ahead, there were still people in the streets, many of them walking the worse for drink or hanging on to railings, too confused to advance further.” Liverpool is Beryl Bainbridge’s city, the place of most of her novels so far. Even in 1912, when “Young Adolf” arrives at Lime Street Station, his only luggage a copy of Karl May’s Old Shatterhand, this is already a beaten place. Most people are the worse for poverty, or at least too confused to advance further. The cold wind blows perpetually off the River Mersey, so that “the blackened city seemed to sail in an ocean of white sky.”
Only one place in the city is confident, opulent, orderly. This is the Adelphi Hotel, in a way the axis of the novel. Directly or indirectly, almost everyone is working for the Adelphi or stealing from it. When Adolf enters, “his feelings were those of the natural swimmer who, until that moment, hadn’t known the exact location of the river. Sinking into the carpet of dusky pink that rolled a hundred feet across the marble floor, he floated between islands of small tables and elegant sofas to the foyer beyond….”
Adolf is met at Lime Street by his half-brother Alois. But Alois had been expecting his sister Angela; assuming that Adolf has stolen the money he sent Angela for her fare, he kicks him. Alois is another Bainbridge pasha, a flamboyant brute who is convinced that he is the greatest razor salesman in the world but works part-time as a waiter at the Adelphi in the evenings. He dazzles and terrorizes poor Bridget, his young Irish wife.
Bridget doesn’t care for young Adolf, on first sight. This is the artist brother she has heard a good deal about, but he is dangerously shabby and seems to be given over to a cycle of mad rages and long, cataleptic sleeps on her sofa. Yet another uncontrollable, unpredictable element has pushed into her life. Actually, life has been out of control for a long time, ever since Alois overwhelmed her at the Dublin Horse Show with his pearl tiepin and mustaches. She knows that one day soon Alois will suddenly, finally, get sick of her and “darling Pat,” the baby, and will clear off. Meanwhile, she has been drawn into a guilty half-affair with Mr. Meyer, the landlord who lives downstairs and plays the violin in the Adelphi café orchestra. She knows it must be her fault, because Alois always tells her that “it takes two to make the bargain,” but it feels like just another of the things that happen to her. She is always saying “We shouldn’t have,” or “I wish I hadn’t done mutton,” or “Is it catching?”
Helplessness and isolation—two themes of Bainbridge’s novels, as Karl Miller noted in this journal five years ago*—are overcoming this naturally cheerful girl. She won’t win. But Adolf, we know, will triumph in the end, far beyond the close of the novel, in a supremely evil self-assertion. Here in Liverpool, he is almost a sympathetic character as he is engulfed in the mysterious purposes and eccentricities of other people. Dirty and paranoid, he is convinced that he is being followed by police agents from Austria, and every misunderstanding or criticism plunges him back into panic or fury. He gets drunk at a wonderfully Victorian Christmas dinner, held in the basement, and Mr. Meyer holds his head as he vomits down a grating. He quarrels desperately with Alois, who can’t stand his shabbiness. He lands at last a job as a waiter in the Adelphi, only to bolt, disguised in women’s clothes, after he finds that he has been used as delivery boy by a hotel burglar.
At the novel’s center is the figure of Mr. Meyer. A Jewish socialist, he turns out to be running an underground organization which attempts to hide poor children from the city welfare department, to prevent them from being taken from their parents and stowed in an orphanage. Adolf conceives a hero-worship for the cultured Meyer, “someone worthy of his friendship…who could be trusted not to succeed where he himself had failed,” and is drawn—in no way comprehending what is going on—into Meyer’s enterprise.
He witnesses the defeat of the plan, in a slum house off Scotland Road, when “the night men”—the welfare officials—burst in and take the children away. Meyer brandishes a stick, then gives in without resistance. And here we are encountering a plain allusion to the future, a device which in hands less delicate than Bainbridge’s could easily go wrong and produce a sentimental discord. The Holocaust is prefigured, as the officials “select” children and take them away to their fate and as Meyer and his helpers surrender without a blow. The humiliated Meyer tells Adolf: “Let the minority act with enough authority, and the majority will walk like lambs to the slaughter.”
There are other, less direct allusions of this sort. Bridget sews Adolf a brown shirt out of a spare piece of material, and he likes it. When he is hit over the head, she combs his hair down over one eye to hide the bruise. After his transvestite escape from the Adelphi, he decides to grow a mustache so that he will never be taken for a woman again. It’s the measure of this highly original, immensely skillful novel that such literary risks are successfully taken.
Dan Jacobson’s new novel is also about helpless people, and about how a dictatorship can incite the weak to humiliate the humble. The eponymous Josef Baisz, born in poor circumstances in a distant province of a country called “Sarmeda,” will become “bodyguard, police spy, kidnapper, murderer and favored son of the regime.” His tale begins with the plainest of omens: young Baisz is alternately stroking a kitten and flinging it against the wall until the excitement of his own heartbeat begins to suffocate him. He has transferred his own helplessness; he’s free to love the kitten. “In my kindness to the cat, there remained the sweet, poison drop of what I had once done to it.”
Baisz is conscripted into Sarmeda’s “Republican Guard,” and it is not long before he is informing on his closest friend to Captain Serle, his commander. “When I say [my friend] I loved him for his ignorance of what I had done to him.” Judas Iscariot, he reflects, didn’t betray Jesus for the money but because “he could only love through betrayal.” Serle is promoted to the post of deputy Minister of National Guidance, and brings the sinister youth to the capital to serve as his bodyguard. So greatly does Baisz esteem his new master that he manages to seduce his beautiful, well-born wife Gita and cripple Serle through a contrived accident. And so the process of self-realization through sadism, or “Grausamkeit Macht Frei,” continues to develop and repeat itself in variation after variation.
But even monsters occasionally slip. Baisz bungles: sent to help arrange a discreet funeral for an elderly, dissident professor, he allows the coffin to be hijacked under his nose by a bunch of the professor’s students. In vain he bangs off his pistol after the vanishing hearse. He has failed, for the first time, and stands suddenly helpless again in an empty landscape.
It seems right to recall here that Dan Jacobson is a South African. The Ruritanian republic of his novel, where people live with narrow vision in wide places, is not so exclusively European after all. There are other continents where the informer and the secret policeman rule, where people vanish without trial, where titles are windy euphemisms (“Minister of Plural Relations” for “governor of the blacks”). The Confessions of Joseph Baisz is not a strict allegory of South Africa. But the language and place names of Sarmeda are echoes of Afrikaans words, whether it is the dictator’s title of “Heerser” or the island prison of Volmaran—a new model Robben Island—where Josef Baisz reaches the summit of his career as Moral Guidance Officer.
He has achieved many more spicy betrayals to get there. Recruited by the security police, he kidnaps the children of a lawyer whose loyalty to the regime is suspect: the lawyer kills himself, and Baisz, masquerading as the children’s protector, marries his widow. (There are themes in this which Jacobson dealt with in his magnificent Old Testament novel, The Rape of Tamar). But at about this point the novel, up to now working smoothly and maintaining the evil fascination of its main character, starts to creak. On Volmaran Island, Baisz’s job is to persuade prisoners of their own guilt, to draw them through the “nauseating thrill” of betrayal which he has so often given himself and on to the “sense of absolution and liberation” which only final moral humiliation can give. This is already somewhat too adroit. Then comes the novel’s crisis: on the day of the Heerser’s inspection, Baisz recognizes his own sister among his prisoners, but when she appeals to him for mercy, he pretends he has never seen her before.
Broken at last, Baisz identifies the supreme object for betrayal: himself. And he sits down to write—and distribute—his Confessions. This seems too neat. The irony floods in too thick and smooth. Suddenly we are only watching a clever writer devising a novel’s clever end.
Dan Jacobson has been close to the experience of living under a bloody dictatorship. But he has been spared total immersion. And, though it may sound crude to say so, the best novels about political decisions between bad and worse, about the few and ugly moral choices which survive down in the blackest depths, have generally been written by people who have lived in those depths. Conrad comes to mind, and Heinrich Böll, and the great Croat writer Miroslav Krleza whose novel about an imaginary East European autocracy between the wars, Banquet in Blithuania, seems to me comparable in its power and moral complexity to Nostromo. (A French translation was published by Calmann-Lévy in 1964 but as far as I know nobody has yet had the enterprise to produce an English version.)
Yet it takes courage to write about those depths with only imagination and sympathy as a guide. The plunge attempted by Leslie Epstein in King of the Jews required not merely courage but a degree of self-confidence approaching the suicidal. Epstein has written a novel about the Holocaust, a monumental study of the leader of a Judenrat. The scene is the Ghetto of Lodz, in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the central character is based on Chaim Mordecai Rumkowski, that legendary figure who ruled the ghetto, terrorized its inhabitants into passivity and submission, and persuaded them that a policy of “co-operation”—of letting one category after another be rounded up and driven into the trains bound for the gas chambers—offered a chance of survival for the dwindling remnant.
It isn’t overstating the matter to say that there is no more terrible story in the history of the world than this, and for more than thirty years the Jewish people have been trying to come to terms with it, sometimes by outright denial, sometimes by total condemnation, sometimes with mercy and understanding. But nobody, I think, has seriously tried to understand Rumkowski and his like, still less to find mercy for them. It is easier to accept a personality like Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw Judenrat, who killed himself when he understood that he would have to hand over children for the next transport.
Epstein seems undismayed. His own background was remote from these events; he grew up, in a family whose Jewishness was secular and slight, in Southern California and now teaches creative writing at Boston University. He has said that “it may take a third-generation Jew from LA to write a novel about the Holocaust,” and seems well aware of the distaste which his enterprise may provoke. But that sally does him less than justice.
Isaiah Trumpelman, the main character, is brilliantly described. He is physically huge. He is very old, apparently on the edge of collapse. He is a patriarch, whose grand marriage ceremony in the presence of the SS commander is a triumph of black comedy, and he is also a lecher. He both delivers and destroys; he rescues Jewish girls destined for a brothel, and forces his hysterical colleagues on the Judenrat to make up the first list of names for deportation. He loves children, and since before the war he has been running an orphanage. But this does not prevent Trumpelman from pressing his charges into the wagons bound for Auschwitz and Treblinka, when the time comes, and regaling them—inevitably, he is a mesmeric storyteller—with descriptions of their new home awaiting them in the jungles of Madagascar. “Don’t tremble!” he roars, as the train begins to move. “The children…are under the Elder’s protection. You share his immunity!” Then he jumps off.
There is resistance to Trumpelman, but it fails to stop him. There is a strike, organized by a handful of devoted socialists, as the ghetto workers try to halt the awful spiral of rising Nazi production quotas and progressive cuts in their microscopic wages. There is a cell of armed ghetto fighters, at once heroic and absurd, who fail to assassinate Trumpelman and are finally left to their fate at German hands by the advancing Russians. There is even a macabre Shakespeare production, in the presence of the Elder and his wife, through which the actors strive to show the audience that it is the Trumpelmans who are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. But the evening ends with the irruption of the SS and ghetto police, and the round-up of the audience for the next transport. Whatever happens, Trumpelman never loses his authority. And it is an authority that even his Jewish enemies, standing before him, gun in hand, find they cannot deny.
The portrait of Trumpelman has great power. He is indeed a “King of the Jews.” But the novel around him, vivid and engrossing as it is, remains a feat of pastiche. Epstein has drawn from the Jewish fiction of Eastern Europe, Yiddish or vernacular, the qualities of combined farce and horror, of stifling claustrophobia, and exaggerated them so that to turn for a moment to a page of Isaac Bashevis Singer or of Bruno Schulz is a relief, a contrast in its lucidity and even its calm. The introversion of the dying ghetto is heightened. Although these events are taking place in the midst of a large Polish industrial city, the Poles feature only in the occasional apelike shadow of a passing anti-Semitic peasant. The Polish resistance does not appear at all. And the Soviet failure to relieve the warsaw rising is transformed and transferred into a deliberate Russian plan to let the Jewish partisans of Lodz be wiped out before the Red Army arrives in the city.
Epstein is in no way trying to make light of what took place; there is no question about his grief and passion—or of his talent. Satire was probably the only possible medium for his task. But finally one’s conviction in the work stays suspended. Yes, but was it really that way? And Trumpelman/Rumkowski…is it possible, after all, that he was not a tragic figure but, like those whose orders he obeyed in the Final Solution, a demon whose moral features were banal?
NYR, May 16, 1974.↩
NYR, May 16, 1974.↩