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.
Robert Beauvais’s novel The Half Jew, translated from the French, is done in a very different style. This is a bitterly satirical account of Vichy France, of growing up with a Jewish father, and it is very much directed to a French readership. Those who don’t know about Arsène Lupin or Noël-Noël will miss some allusions. Beauvais is joining the chorus of those who now say that there was more of authentic Catholic France in Vichy than people like to believe—and that there is more of authentic Vichy in France today than people like to recognize: the sentimental passion for rediscovered peasant “virtues” and a soggy rural mysticism, combined with a brutal and multiplying bureaucracy at the top.
But this is also a novel about the special survivor’s guilt for “unspecified but unindictable crimes.” The boy in the novel, to whom his father’s race has meant nothing until now, must watch him being steadily humiliated and crushed. Monsieur Benoît left Paris in 1940 and is now concealing his Jewishness under the Vichy regime (which means little to him either: he is in most respects a cynical, witty, anticlerical French petty-bourgeois like millions of others). At dinner parties, he takes care to eat pork. As the conversation turns to the discussion of “Them”—how They are everywhere, how one can sense Them even when they pretend to be French, for Their special smell—father keeps quiet and avoids everyone’s eyes. As the years pass, he shrivels. A neighbor denounces him as a Jew for parking his bicycle in the wrong place, and there arrives a ghastly scoutmaster figure whose job is to examine a suspect penis for evidence of ritual circumcision. Father eludes arrest only because his son is uncircumcised and has been baptised.
But after the Liberation and his father’s death from cancer, the boy begins a hectic flight from his own agonized feelings. Like the young girl in Demetz’s novel, he has lost his identity and, somehow, his honor. There are feverish love affairs, a Catholic conversion, an entrance to the priesthood. Then, improbably, the priest is seduced by an Israeli nurse and we leave him as an Israeli soldier, waiting to attack at dawn in the Yom Kippur war. Is this a believable atonement for his father? Beauvais seems to have run out of ways to end his book.
Uri Olev, who arrived in Palestine with his small brother after the war, is a well-known Israeli writer. The Lead Soldiers is the story, done as fiction but heavily drawing on autobiography, of two Jewish children under the Nazi occupation of Poland. The parents of the two boys are a young Warsaw couple, a radiologist and a chemist, who suffer from “the fashionable leftism of the times” and have done “their best to forget and even conceal their Jewish origins.” The mother redeems herself by giving her health, and then her life, for her children in the Warsaw Ghetto. The father escapes to the Soviet Union and after the war—so an epilogue records—marries an aristocratic Polish Catholic and breaks off contact with his sons in Israel.
The two small boys, Yurik and Kazik, share the physical fate of the European Jews up to the penultimate episode. They live through the nightmare of the ghetto, hiding as orphans in the attics and cellars of Polish families on the outside. They are persuaded to come out of hiding and apply for travel permits to Palestine, and are then transported, through some eccentric twitch of SS bureaucracy, to Bergen-Belsen with their aunt and uncle, where they manage, narrowly, to survive the war. But they are also exposed to a psychological experience which many European Jews did not share, and which is the theme of the other novels under review: they suffer anti-Semitism without being aware that they are Jews. A Jew, it appears to them, must mean somebody who is thrown out of his school, whose friends call him “Yid,” and who is forced to leave his home and move into the ghetto. Orlev cleverly evokes the growing toughness and self-reliance of these matter-of-fact little boys, who never ask this insane world to explain itself but who learn how to survive and how to play. When there are no toy soldiers, there are bedbugs in their Warsaw cellar, or wingless flies at Belsen. Death is everywhere; they watch it out of the corner of their eyes, resorting to “Hail Mary” prayers when it comes too close.
For a German Jew to remain in Germany and outlive the Third Reich, providence must have been hard pressed. That a whole Jewish family, not only Jews but Russian Jews, not only foreigners but in the parents’ case active communists, not in hiding but in their own flat in the middle of Frankfurt-on-Main should have escaped seems inconceivable. Yet it happened. Two died, the mother of disease and one of the sons on the Eastern front, but all eluded the net of the Final Solution. This is the story of Valentin Senger’s No. 12 Kaiserhofstrasse, now translated from the German.
There was no single explanation. A series of preposterous miracles helped, and the unexplained decency of a Frankfurt policeman who had known the Sengers for years. He managed to get the word “Hebraic” taken off their registration cards, but the Sengers continued to take insane risks long after Hitler’s seizure of power, like maintaining touch with the Jewish community or making journeys through border areas without a permit. On two occasions, Valentin had to strip before doctors; the first time, he had the luck to encounter a doctor who was an anti-Nazi and on the second an Army doctor mysteriously overlooked his circumcision. During the war, the father took home with him Russian forced-labor women and tuned into Radio Moscow for them; none betrayed him. The neighbors, some of whom knew perfectly well that the Sengers were Jews, did nothing about it.
Without luck, the mother’s efforts to give her family a Gentile identity could not have worked. But she managed to confect a complete and convincing Aryan family tree for them all; she insisted that her reckless family keep their heads down and avoid such mad risks as Valentin’s practice of sticking up anti-Hitler posters in railroad stations in the middle of the war. She forced them to be afraid and to dissemble, at least for some of the time.
It is a wonderfully told story, an unforgettable view of a German street and its inhabitants under the pressures of fascism and war. It ought to be a triumphant story. But it is not. Valentin, like so many of the others, still suffers for his “survivorship.” The years of denying his people left their mark in a sense of dishonor, of lost identity. “You wanted to spare us,” he says to his mother’s ghost, “but how could you have known that years of self-disavowal are bound to warp a man’s soul?” He accuses her: “You brought us up to be servile…to swim in a sea of lies…. Of course, a thousand accidents and a few miracles helped, but without the lies wouldn’t have been enough to save our lives. But what a life!”
Samuel Pisar’s Of Blood and Hope is a work of a different kind. It is certainly not a confession of the survivor’s guilt; Pisar, a distinguished lawyer who was an adviser to the Kennedy administration on East-West relations, turns the appalling experience of his youth into a prologue for prophecy. He has seen the Apocalypse once; now he fears its approach once more in the form of nuclear holocaust. To prevent it, he has written about his own life—as a warning.
It is as if an Auschwitz fever has taken hold of mankind, pushing it irresistably towards the precipice.…. The combination of high technology and high brutality, which I had seen practiced on a pilot scale not so long ago, shows that man is quite capable of resorting to both the ideological premises and the scientific means for annihilation. I will not have completed what I set out to recount without expressing my sense of protest against this silent acceptance by the peoples of the East and the West of a fate that is all too likely to destroy our children’s world, if it does not destroy ours.
Simply as memoir, the book is remarkable. Child of a prosperous Jewish family in Bialystok, in eastern Poland, Pisar was separated from his family and sent as a small boy to Maidanek, Blizin, and then Auschwitz. Partly by luck, partly through his quickness at learning the savage skill of hanging onto life and through two young friends, Niko and Ben, he came through. The rest of his immediate family died. The three friends, once liberated, became little gangsters in the American zone of Germany, looting and running small rackets until it palled on them and Samuel was taken to Australia by relatives. There he was persuaded to study. From a ruthless, nihilistic go-getter emerged an ambitious and lively intellectual; he went to Harvard, took a law degree, and became a White House adviser, writer of books on East-West trade, and an authority on the economic aspects of détente.
Pisar has written one of the most perceptive Auschwitz memoirs. But he has done more than simply record events. He has tried to make sense of the tattoo on his arm. He interprets his survival and his memories as involving his responsibility to the world rather than as an indictment against himself. His message, put with almost theatrical passion, has two parts. First, he is testifying that the worst can happen, and probably will happen again. Secondly, he is concerned to demolish the view that the Soviet Union is a monolithic war machine bent on expansion which can only be checked by force. Here, the voice of Pisar is the revisionist voice of the Sixties: the Cold War is the result of mutual misperception, the Soviet regime is far weaker than it appears, and close coexistence, especially through trade, will in the end soften the system. Some seven years ago, in an open letter to Andrei Sakharov, Pisar criticized him for advocating economic sanctions against the Soviet Union. Only in contact and cooperation lies safety, not only for the East but for a West threatened by economic disaster which could bring back the germs of militarism and repression.
This is not a tone of voice which is eagerly heard in Washington these days. But Pisar should be read, not only for what he suffered and saw but for what that suffering allows him to see today. Samuel Pisar, after much hesitation, agreed to return to Auschwitz a few years ago with President Giscard d’Estaing. He said there: “If such horrors seem relevant today, it is because we dare not forget that the past can also be prologue, that amidst the ashes of Auschwitz we can discern a specter of doomsday, a warning to mankind of what might still lie ahead.”
June 12, 1980