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Survivors

The House on Prague Street

by Hana Demetz
St. Martin’s Press, 192 pp., $8.95 (to be published July 25)

The Missing Years

by Walter Laqueur
Little, Brown, 281 pp., $10.95

The Half Jew

by Robert Beauvais, translated by Harold J. Salemson
Taplinger, 262 pp., $9.95

The Lead Soldiers

by Uri Orlev, translated by Hillel Halkin
Taplinger, 234 pp., $9.95

No. 12 Kaiserhofstrasse

by Valentin Senger, translated by Ralph Manheim
Dutton, 238 pp., $10.95

Of Blood and Hope

by Samuel Pisar
Little, Brown, 311 pp., $12.95

A year ago I was at Auschwitz, waiting for the Pope. It was a day of pitiless heat. The Polish crowds poured into the vast Birkenau enclosures hour after hour, buying Catholic souvenirs, memorial postcards, soft drinks, and chocolate from the stalls set up along the way. In the temporary press enclosure by the main gate, a tent housed a “cocktail bar.” The Papal dais stood astride the blackened rails which lead to the ramp, the gas chambers, and the crematoria.

There was time to wander down to the end of the tracks, behind the stone memorial, and to explore. Much had given way to time and nature since my last visit. Stout trees had grown out of soil composed of what had been human ash. Certain significant pits and pools and mounds had been overgrown, had subsided or were no longer to be found. The earth itself looked more like dark earth, in places where once it had shown a whitish mud of calcined bone particles. And the poplars planted by the Nazis to screen the crematoria have grown enormously tall and graceful, stirring their tips against the blue sky, no longer “their” trees as the rusting miles of barbed wire remain eternally “their” wire.

Auschwitz has not lost its horror, but the form of that horror slowly changes its extent and its outline as the years pass. It is impossible to protect the Final Solution from the blowing, curious seeds of the human imagination. Thousands of people in continents remote from Europe, born long after the last transport reached its destination, connected remotely or not at all to the Jewish people or the other victim nations, people sensitive or people ghoulish, want to shuffle these events about and make new patterns with them. Is this a sacrilege, especially to the Jews? It is certainly inevitable, and most of the continuing flow of “Holocaust literature” is serious and careful, attentive to the mass of firsthand documentation that records not only what took place but, if that is possible, “what it was like.” There is some trash, sentimental or modishly sadistic. But on the whole, intelligent writers are endeavoring to assimilate and make sense of the worst scene in human history.

Precisely that last sentence, however, is the problem for some critics. If the Holocaust can be “assimilated,” it was not the Holocaust, whose characteristic was that it was unique, that here evil burst through into an entirely new category. There is nothing to which Auschwitz can be “assimilated” except Treblinka and Belzec and Sobibor and so on, because nothing else is similar. There is no sense in establishing a comparative scale in which “bad” goes to “worse” and ends with “worst” if worst means Birkenau. Treblinka is perhaps to be called “worse” than Dachau, but the same adjective cannot properly stretch from an American penitentiary (“bad”) to the death camps (“worst”) because something, a frontier of quality and degree, stands between. And to talk of “making sense” of either the wholesale gassing of a race or the life of a concentration-camp prisoner is blasphemy.

I am uneasy about this view, impressive as it can sound. The human race is going to try to “understand” the Holocaust as history, as a part of history, just as it has tried to understand other quantitatively lesser massacres and crimes. In the end, I suspect, our instinctive suspicion of these first attempts to appropriate the Holocaust as imaginative raw material are less to do with philosophical definitions than with our nearness to the event, with fear that it could be belittled and distorted and therefore more easily repeated, or that a Jewish political consciousness might be undermined, or that the guilty are being offered a milder verdict in their own lifetimes.

These thoughts are prompted by reading Alvin H. Rosenfeld’s A Double Dying,1 a study of Holocaust literature. It is a passionate and perceptive book, but Rosenfeld is vigilant against what he sees as a tendency among writers—especially non-Jewish writers—to “universalize” the Holocaust. He complains, for instance, about William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. He is irritated that Sophie, the camp survivor, is a Polish Catholic and furious about the debauching of Sophie in postwar New York by a sadistic Jewish satyr who incarnates “the Christian’s fears about an imagined Jewish diabolism.” Rosenfeld especially condemns Styron’s “tendency to universalize Auschwitz as a murderous threat against ‘mankind.’ ” This was for Rosenfeld a Jewish tragedy, not to be heedlessly shared by the rest of humanity. And he goes so far as to write: “Most of European Jewry was murdered, and the murderers were European Gentiles, some of whom also died….”

This is a true statement, put in a peculiarly offensive way. Those who want to mourn the non-Jewish millions who perished are asked to leave the hall and make their own arrangements. It is not an attitude which many writers will share, and most of these novels and memoirs under review, written by Jewish or half-Jewish survivors, ask the reader to understand the Holocaust as a “murderous threat to mankind” as a whole.

Rosenfeld writes with compassion about the psychological problems this literature presents. “Survivorship,” as he calls it, is almost harder to record than the approach of death described in the journals from the doomed ghettos, “in some ways more punishingly cruel for being more extended in its anguish…[the survivor] feels himself indicted for unspecified but unindictable crimes.” This is compounded for those who survived the Final Solution without entering the camps at all, either because as half-Jews they suffered discrimination but not arrest or because they contrived to avoid identification as Jewish altogether. Demetz, Beauvais, and Laqueur all write about families in Nazi Europe with one Jewish parent; Orlev and Senger describe families that were Jewish but in one way or another assimilated or separated from the Jewish community.

Four of these six books are novels—in form. To a great extent, they seem to be memoirs whose authors have preferred to organize their recollections through fiction, and it sometimes seems the best medium for subjects as delicate as adolescence in a family where one parent wears a yellow Star of David. In The House on Prague Street, for instance, Hana Demetz is evoking a young girl in Czechoslovakia whose mother, from a rich and well-rooted Jewish family, has married a German from the Sudetenland. The family, liberal and easygoing, soon accepts him, and for their daughter there is an idyllic childhood centered on the “house on Prague Street,” in a small Bohemian town which has been for generations the home of her mother’s family. She is overprotected: the rise of Hitler, Munich, the German occupation in 1939 are events that worry the grownups but seem to have no meaning for her own life.

But the ugliness presses closer. Her father loses his job, then destroys her faith in him when he does not protest against a racial insult offered to her at school. Her mother must wear a yellow star, and has smaller rations. Her grandparents and the rest of her mother’s family have to leave Prague Street and go to an uncomfortable place called Theresienstadt. Still she cannot see why she should be part of all the sadness and dreariness; she is young, she has a right to some fun. And she moves, almost innocently, toward the German world in Prague, finds cheerful German girlfriends, develops crushes on German film stars, and finally falls in love with a handsome young officer on leave from the Russian front. Will he drop her when he finds out that her mother is Jewish? He is a decent man, and loves her all the more.

The story is expertly told. The top-heavy unreality of her life collapses now with a rush. The young officer is killed in Normandy, her mother dies. She is drafted to a munitions factory. At the liberation of Prague, her German friends are thrown out of their houses and her father is mortally wounded on a barricade as he tries to stop German and Czech from killing each other. The truth about what has happened to the deported Jews finds her utterly alone. In a superb final scene, she returns to the house on Prague Street and finds it inhabited by silent, emaciated men in black. They have tattooed arms. They stare at her, and tell her quietly to go away and leave them in peace. “You don’t know, you haven’t seen.”

The Missing Years has a wider scope. A first novel by Walter Laqueur, who is well known as an accomplished historian and writer on international affairs, the book is about Jews in Germany in the course of this century. The narrator, Richard Lasson, an old and successful physician in the United States, has just encountered a young visitor who asks about the “missing years” in his curriculum vitae—the years between 1933 and 1946. When Lasson replies that he was living in Germany, as a Jew, the visitor is bewildered. Lasson understands that to explain to his descendants how this was possible isn’t a simple task. His account of these years is a story not just of ruse and luck but more importantly of deep integration—or the illusion of it—of members of the German-Jewish middle class into German society. He describes the tragic reluctance to believe that Hitler meant what he said or that so large a part of the German people could turn upon the neighbors with whom they had lived at peace for centuries.

As social history expressed through fiction, Laqueur’s novel is the shrewdest and most observant study of German Jewry I have read since Sybille Bedford’s The Legacy. Richard Lasson is born into a Jewish family in a little South German town, as secure and accepted as the family in The House on Prague Street. He does his patriotic part in the trenches during the First World War, studies at Heidelberg, marries a German girl of aristocratic family, becomes a doctor in Berlin. He has two fine sons, a good practice, well-connected friends. He simply can’t believe that the Hitler movement is more than a gruesome farce.

To show a first-person narrator as both impressive and flawed is tricky, but Laqueur succeeds in showing Lasson as stupid, obstinate, complacent—as well as learned, intelligent, sensitive. His Gentile wife understands far earlier the real danger, but he procrastinates and finds reasons not to emigrate until it is too late. He is very German. His marriage protects him from deportation, and he retreats into a life beside the radio, among his books. Between air raids, he pays visits to the dwindling Association of German Jews, and here Laqueur brilliantly brings to life historical figures like Leo Baeck and re-creates their reactions as the deportations eat their people away and corner them into the miserable position of a helpless Judenrat. Only Lasson’s sons act: they join the group of young Jews who went underground in wartime Berlin and managed—a few of them—to survive. In the end the sons escape, and Laqueur describes vividly their long journey to the Swiss border, where the infamous Dr. Rothmund of the Swiss police orders their return (a grim page in the history of Switzerland). They next make their way to Alsace and at last successfully cross the frontier to Switzerland after Rothmund’s policy is revoked.

  1. 1

    Alvin H. Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (Indiana University Press, 1980).

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