Television images of orthodox Jews being pushed into German police vans are hard to watch without cringing. No doubt the Jews, who had come this spring from all over the world to protest in Hamburg against the plan to build a department store on the site of a former Jewish cemetery, were well aware of this. It was part of the show, so to speak. But with the instinctive cringe comes a sense of déjà vu. I am not talking so much about what plenty of people saw in Germany fifty years ago as about the tired symbolism of the occasion: West German consumerism dancing on the skeletons of the past; the good life as the quickest route to collective amnesia—the great cliché of the West German Wirtschaftswunder.
Like all clichés, it contains some truth. It is also an image that appeals to moralists who distrust the good life anyway, even when they take it for granted. This includes quite a few young Germans, who, for understandable reasons, cringe easily when it comes to Jewish matters. Cringe is perhaps not quite the right word. Many Germans, especially of the socalled 1968 generation, Hitler’s children, are betroffen, which is to be in a state of speechless embarrassment. One way out of this state is to confess. Not only does confession relieve the pressure of guilt, but it can lift the confessor to a higher moral plane, to the point, almost, of being able to identify with the victims of his sins.
If West German consumerism was reflected in such things as the Fresswelle, literally the wave of gluttony, and the Sex Welle, which speaks for itself, betroffenheit has resulted of late in a wave of interest in Jewish matters, especially in Berlin, and most especially among young people. The sections on Judaica in German bookshops are expanding all the time. In one average week of watching German television, I saw a program on historical Jewish communities in Europe, two programs on aspects of the Holocaust, a report on Jews returning to Germany, and several documentaries about Jewish artists and intellectuals. The biggest exhibition in Berlin this year was on the history of Jewish culture, accompanied by a festival of old Yiddish films.
Jewish and Israeli writers sell more books in Germany than anywhere else in Europe. The opinions of Amos Oz or George Konrád are as avidly sought after by the German press as those of Günter Grass, if not more so. Konrád won last year’s German Peace Prize, Oz has won it this year. It is as though German public opinion needs the moral approval or castigation of famous Jews before it can make up its mind about anything, especially about the state of being German.
The German fascination for things Jewish is, I believe, only partly to be explained by residual feelings of guilt. It also has an element of nostalgia. It is, perhaps, the intellectual equivalent of the vulgar taste for rabbis carved of wood that one finds in Polish souvenir stores. The Jewish past has become almost folkloric, a lost paradise. The German-Jewish journalist Henryk Broder once described the phenomenon as “the fatal German love for sick or dead Jews.”
But that is not the whole story. German intellectual life was maimed by the destruction of German Jews and many Germans find this painful. Postwar Germany feels like a person who has lost part of his brain, the part that Nazis hated most, the sparkling, witty, cosmopolitan part that lifted the German soul from its muddy soil.
Here is what E.M. Cioran wrote about the source of prewar German anti-Semitism: “When one strives to escape from one’s province and tackle the world, one resents those who long since have had no borders: one can’t forgive their nimble rootlessness, or their ubiquity.” Postwar Germany is provincial. Despite its recently changed status, postwar Berlin is still provincial. The Jewish wave shows a longing to crash the provincial borders. This, as well as guilt-ridden betroffenheit, might explain the conspicuous desire to identify with Jews. Jewish visitors from abroad are often surprised to find that almost every young German they meet announces that his or her grandfather, or great uncle, or great-grandmother was Jewish. A well-known German journalist, who made some excellent films on the Nazi period, went so far as to adopt a Hebrew name. There is a fashionable new café in east Berlin, where blond, young, blue-eyed Germans sit around in kippas eating falafel.
I am talking of a minority, of course. But the minority is big enough to signify something important. As for the other Germans, the ones who never liked Jews or foreigners and still don’t well, as an American friend once put it: “You don’t really meet them, since they don’t particularly want to meet us.”
Given all the betroffenheit, a mystery remains: Why, with one exception that I know of, are there no novels by gentile German writers that deal directly with the Holocaust? There are novels that treat the subject metaphorically, or in passing, but there is no book that actually describes, in fictional terms, the destruction of the Jews. The exception is the book under review by Wolfgang Koeppen, and this novel was originally published in 1948, under a Jewish name.
The history of the book is at least as interesting as the book itself. The title is (my translation) Jakob Littner’s Notes From a Hole in the Ground. The author’s name on the cover of the original edition was Jakob Littner. There actually was a Jakob Littner. He was a stamp salesman in Munich. Although Littner lived in Germany, had grown up there, and spoke nothing but German, he carried a Polish passport, since his father was a native of a small town on the border of the Austro-Hungarian empire called Auschwitz.
After the Kristallnacht in 1938, Littner was forced to flee to Prague and thence to Poland, where he managed, under dreadful conditions, to survive. He returned to Munich in 1945, but decided to move on to the United States. Before leaving Germany, he visited a publisher to whom he told the story of his survival, which he wanted to be written up. The publisher made some notes and found a young writer, who was only too happy to turn the material into a book. He was to be paid in food parcels sent from New York by Jakob Littner.
Since the publisher’s notes were hardly enough for a chapter, let alone a book, the writer, who had already written a couple of novels, turned the story into a fictional memoir. Littner was not pleased with the result, but evidently declined to take action, for the book was published under his name. Still, it was soon forgotten—Holocaust stories were not especially popular in the late 1940s—until this year. The Jüdischer Verlag, bought by Suhrkamp, published it again, as part of the Jewish wave, this time under the real author’s name, which was, as we now know, Wolfgang Koeppen.
Koeppen made his name in the 1950s with a trilogy about the Nazi traumas of postwar Germany. Tauben im Grass, Das Treibhaus, and Der Tod in Rom were compared by critics to the works of Joyce and Döblin; in them one finds an acid stream of consciousness filled with dark musings about the state of being German. Koeppen never published another novel.
The story of Littner’s survival is told mostly in a sober style, which couldn’t be less Joycean or Döblinesque. Littner spends time in the ghetto of Zbaraz, near Tarnopol, which is slowly being “liquidated” by the SS. Koeppen describes the privileges of the Judenrat and the Jewish militia, who had hoped to survive by doing the Germans’ dirty work, but were liquidated at the end, just like the others.
There was a wedding party at the Judenrat today. A militia man got married to Grünfeld’s daughter. It was said to have been like the promised land of milk and honey. For us ordinary Jews this wedding celebration will doubtless mean an extra contribution.
It is difficult to imagine this being written in 1948 by a betroffen German gentile. The stock Jewish characters in postwar German novels are paragons of benevolence and long-suffering wisdom. In this respect, the Jewish voice was a help in writing about the past honestly, a past in which there were killers and victims, but very few heroes. The author’s honest intentions, however, do not save his characters from literary death. None of them begins to come to life in the imagined story of Littner.
There is, however, one heroine in the book, who is not Jewish, but, perhaps significantly, a German gentile: Christa, Littner’s business partner in Munich. It was she who risked everything to track Littner down in the Polish ghetto, and who kept him supplied with money and valuable stamps. These were needed to pay off a shabby Polish aristocrat, who allowed Littner to hide in a fetid hole under his cellar. Once, when the money failed to arrive, Littner had to pay with the gold fillings in his teeth, which he tore out with his hands.
The heroics of a German woman and the frequent references in the book to polite, even friendly German soldiers (as opposed to the SS men), may have been misunderstood in the case of a gentile German writer. They may have sounded a little too convenient, a little too easy on the German conscience. And yet there is one passage in the book which is both beautiful and devastating. It comes after the final liquidation of the Zbaraz ghetto:
Zbaraz is Judenrein! The guns are silent. Death is silent. The graves are silent. Germany is silent. The dead Jews are still. And the world around us is mute. We, who saved ourselves in a hole in the ground, are surrounded by damp and silent walls.
It would have been a fine ending. Instead, Koeppen finished the book on a quasi-religious note, written in the words of an imaginary Jew but expressing the betroffen feelings of many German gentiles: “I hate no one. I don’t even hate the guilty. I have suffered their persecution; but I cannot allow myself to be their judge…. Their deeds are, I believe, beyond human judgment. Only God can judge the absolutely inhuman….”
This fits in nicely with Adorno’s idea that poetry, or any work of the imagination, is not able to convey the industrialized death of millions without trivializing it, or humanizing the absolutely inhuman. But it really is a little too convenient, a little too wishful. Who is to say that only God can judge? Certainly not a German gentile in 1948.
But the invocation of God, as well as Adorno’s dictum that poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, does serve as an excellent alibi for averting one’s eyes, in fiction, from the final solution. Fiction, even bad fiction, deals with the acts of recognizable human beings. This is precisely the problem for German writers: recognizing the killers of Jews as fellow human beings, as fellow German human beings, brings them too close for comfort. It literally brings a religious problem down to earth. So for the German gentile novelist, the Jewish pen name was more than a gimmick, it was a necessity.
George Konrád, in his latest novel, A Feast in the Garden, has his literary alter ego David Kobra proclaim his boredom with literature. David Kobra is a Jewish writer living in Budapest, a Holocaust survivor, a man who in his native town feels at home only in the cemetery. “I am tired of invented characters and invented plots,” he writes. And so: “In every one of my novels I have woven adventures around me.”
And yet the book is not all in Konrád/Kobra’s voice: “When one character speaks, the irony is in the voice; when several characters speak, the irony is in the structure….” The other characters are friends and relatives, who come and go, drink and make love, live and die around a square in Budapest.
Budapest is the city to which the characters return. It is unique among central European (or German) cities in that many Jews did return; they felt Hungarian; they could not imagine living anywhere else. But Budapest is also “a city of burials, a necropolis.” The novel is full of life, fragrant and bruised and juicy, like an overripe peach, but it is also a dance of death. Konrád’s characters are walking on bones, like all survivors in the former playgrounds of Hitler and Stalin: “I have many acquaintances on Liberation Square. A whole cityful, a whole cattle-carful.” On a visit to his native town, Ujfalu, Kobra takes his children and nephew, Tony, for a walk: “Among the high weeds we made our way to the family graves: ‘Jesus Christ, I’m standing on my grandmother!’ Tony cried.”
The most haunting and beautiful part of the book, to my mind, is written in the writer’s own voice. It is the centerpiece, so to speak: a memoir of Konrád’s childhood survival in Budapest during the last year of the war, when Eichmann, with the able help of the Hungarian Arrow-Cross, did his best to make Hungary Judenrein. As a survivor, Konrád does precisely what German novelists have shied away from. Whereas German betroffenheit is more at ease with abstractions—the six million, industrial death, the absolutely inhuman—Konrád supplies the victims with names and small, personal details. He opens up the mass graves, and, for a brief moment, lets the dead speak. There is nothing abstract about them. Their liveliness also testifies to the skills of Imre Goldstein, who translated (I can only assume accurately) their voices into beautiful English.
Take Baba Blau, for instance, a young girl whom the young Kobra rather fancied once:
She had beautiful, heavy brown thighs, a brown mouth, and thick braids. She sat in front of me in the classroom. She’d tilt her head back, I’d grab her hair, and she’d laugh a deep laugh. But one day she turned me in for pulling her hair. I had to take my wooden pencil case to the teacher. With it, the teacher hit my palm several times. When I returned to my seat, Baba grabbed my hand. “Show me your palm.” It was red. She blew into it. It didn’t seem to matter that I was beaten on her account. She looked up at the ceiling, her large mouth in a mocking twist, and her hair again on my desk. “Get your hair out of here!” “Should I?” she asked slowly, lazily, pretending to be stupid. We exchanged sandwiches. She took a bite out of mine and offered me hers. The rule was that both of us had to eat both sandwiches, taking turns. If I offered her mine without taking a bite of it first, she’d get very angry. Baba Blau, too, was gassed and cremated.
This is an extraordinary piece of writing—the small, mundane details, the sensuality, the budding of a young life, and then the abrupt, brutal end.
There are no heroes or heroines in Konrád’s book. There is certainly no sentimentality about sick or dead Jews. There is a deep personal sadness, but that is a very different thing. This comes through mostly in the author’s voice. The other voices—of the womanizing, wandering professor, János Dragomán, or of his mistress, Mclinda Kadron, or of her husband, the film director Antal Tombor—are less melancholy. They are, indeed, the opposite of sick or dead Jews. They gorge on life, as though death were forever on their heels, or round the next corner. When they are not having sex with one another, they are eating and drinking. It is as though the soil over the graveyards of the necropolis is madly fertile, or as though the survivors—like the former killers—need waves of sex and food to deal with the memories of death. Klara, one of the sexiest women in Kobra’s entourage, dreams of dancing, in a short skirt, at her own funeral.
And yet these characters do not have quite the same resonance, for me, as the author’s own voice. There is something, well, literary about them. I must be careful here, for I should hate to suggest that only the suffering of Jews is the real stuff of art. Maybe the difference is this: when the author tells the story of his life, it may be fictional, but it is a life, and it smells of life, and, of course, death. Antal, János, Melinda talk a lot about life, but are burdened with too many ideas and arguments: whether to stay at home or wander the world, Budapest or New York, family or adventure, roots or cosmopolitanism.
Not that the ideas are simple. So many lives have been severed that nothing can be taken for granted any more, not even home, especially not home. Home is the family house and the women who take care of it. Melinda: “This house is a locus of strength, and I am the mistress of it.” Or: “I went to school from this house, and so did my children, and I hope my grandchildren will, too.” But we know this is wishful thinking. The Kobras and their friends lost their houses, first to the Nazis because they were Jews, then to the Communists because they were bourgeois. The author describes the return to his native town, after the liberation of Budapest, as a “return to an unfaithful paradise. A house is always unfaithful; it either falls into ruins before you do, or, surviving you, is ready to shelter others.”
When living on a graveyard nothing can be taken for granted, neither by the victims nor the aggressors. What Konrád has done is reconstruct his house and recreate its inhabitants in his imagination. It is a work of love by a Jewish survivor, which will be read with particular attention by the sons and daughters of people who once tried to kill him. That is progress, of a kind.
July 16, 1992