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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.