Witness to Genocide: On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Simon Schama is grateful for the account of a survivor sent to Auschwitz as an 11-year-old boy
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by Otto Dov Kulka, translated by Ralph Mandel, Allen Lane, 144 pages, Published in the US in March by Belknap Press.
Review by Simon Schama, Financial Times
It is commonplace that in the matter of the Holocaust, words fail us. Language, especially the wrought language of literature, struggles to register atrocities unrecognisable as the acts of sentient humans. Yet however unequal to the task, writers persist in their efforts to give form to smoke; to match words to madness. Sometimes, pardonably, fiction writers fall into the error of encompassing enormity by acts of literary violence. Monsters of prosody result which, with every shriek amid the bloody mire, only draw attention to how far they miss the mark.
But, silence being the handmaid of oblivion, nothing is not enough. The memory-vacuum will quickly be filled by the lies of deniers, whose numbers are increasing not diminishing. So chroniclers of what Otto Dov Kulka calls “the Great Death” continue to be torn between redundancy and futility. The dilemma is particularly acute among the dwindling band of survivors whose personal testimony is unreproducible by second-hand accounts, yet who are traumatically burdened with the indecency of adjectives; the sense that writing may never be more than an artificial simulacrum of what remains buried in their nightmares like deep-lodged shrapnel.
Was that book, one wonders, the work of Primo Levi, who may himself have been a fatal casualty of the struggle between word and memory? Like Levi and HG Adler, Kulka has long wrestled with what he should do with his burden of recall, some of it, like the sense of being perpetually returned to the gates of Auschwitz, mercilessly involuntary. Like Adler (in his sober non-fiction) Kulka has elected to steer clear of anything resembling autobiography and to address the horror instead with the analytical tools of the historian. But that turns out not to have given him peace. So over the years he confided to a tape recorder his dreams, nightmares and memories, which so far from being shrouded in the wraithlike indeterminacy of phantoms, have, for better or worse, remained visions of unsparing precision and concreteness.
Fortunately for us all, he has been persuaded by friends and the promptings of his own formidable decency to turn those spoken recollections and meditations into the astonishing book that is Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. In its essence this is not so much a book about Auschwitz as one about coming to terms with the shock of survival. Like the 11-year-old Kulka, who came within a few hundred metres of the crematoria, assuming that he would perish there, the writing hovers around the incineration, as he puts it, “like a moth circles a flame”.
The origins of the book in Kulka’s patient but exacting self-interrogations; his postwar circumlocutions and confrontations; the visit to the camp, once with his father who also survived; the attempts to liberate himself from the nightmare of obligatory return by doing just that – all mean that Kulka’s style is bony and austere, with scarcely a note of literary striving in the hundred-odd pages. His prose is halting and broken as befits its subject; interspersed with black-and-white photographs which in their amateurishness make no attempt to frame the magnitude of what they ostensibly record: the stoved-in remains of the crematoria; the “forest of concrete pillars” once supporting the barbed wire electrified fences that held the population captive.
WG Sebald, acknowledged as one of those encouraging Kulka to write and publish, is an obvious and appropriate model for wrestling quietly with the infernal. Kafka, too, supplies sympathetic correlates for Kulka’s perplexities. Yet amid the fragmentary, digressive impressions are images of terrible poetic concreteness: the black stains of the Death March which resolve into corpses shot by the Germans and dumped at intervals by the snowy roadside; the “speck” of his mother in “a thin skirt that rippled in the breeze” as she walked off to a labour camp without ever turning her head to look back one last time at her son; a prisoner attempting to dodge the rain of blows beating down on him from the SS through a kind of “grotesque, bizarre dance”.
What, ultimately, makes Kulka’s book unlike any other first-hand account written about the camps is the authenticity of its vision of an 11-year-old boy. By some freak of fate (the logic of which is explained at the end of the book), Otto and his mother, who had volunteered to go from the notoriously fake “resettlement” village of Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, were exempt from the usual merciless division between those swiftly destined for the crematoria where “the living, who enter in their masses in long columns and are ... transformed into flames, into light and smoke, then disappear and fade into those darkening skies”, and those fit enough to slave until they too, after six months, shrink into the skeletons covered by yellow skin he sees carted away each day from the barracks dump. Instead, Kulka and his mother are mysteriously lodged, with thousands of others, in a familienlager, a family barracks where they are spared the shaven heads and camp uniform; where the boy even gets to sleep beside his mother. The barracks turns into a true school, where the future historian learns for the first time of Thermopylae and Salamis; where the children perform an opera and, in an act of stupendous defiance of their fate, sing Schiller’s words and Beethoven’s melody of “Ode to Joy”.
But this miraculous capsule of cultural survival within Auschwitz is, of course, a calculated contrivance of Nazi propaganda, designed to persuade Theresienstadt prisoners that these were the conditions that awaited them upon resettlement to the east, and to convince inspectors from the International Red Cross that reports of torture and immolation were baseless slanders. Once the IRC had fallen for the propaganda stunt at Theresienstadt, there was no further need for its Auschwitz counterpart. Five thousand mothers and children sharing Kulka’s barracks were taken at one fell swoop to the gas chambers, leaving room for another group who in six months would be similarly disposed of. By one of the strokes of luck that Kulka recognises as determining the fate of the doomed, he and his mother were in the camp hospital with diphtheria when the rest of the familienlager were murdered.
There are other moments of fortune that left Kulka possessed by a sense of reckoning suspended rather than obviated. Handing his father a bowl of soup through the electrified fence, his hands (curious to see if the touch was fatal) stick to the wire. The boy assumes he is already dead and is amazed to discover that the landscape of Birkenau remains in his sight in the afterlife. Then he has to ensure that the burns, which turn lacerating and pus-swollen, are not discovered since his unfitness for labour would send him summarily to the crematoria.
All this is unimaginably horrifying, yet through the eyes of little Otto we can, again, apprehend it. In a particularly moving passage, he considers himself spared the “acute, murderous, destructive discord and torment felt by every adult inmate who was uprooted and wrenched from his cultural world ... and which was almost always one of the elements of the shock that often felled them within a short time”. For him, he writes, that shock “did not exist because this was the first world and the first order I had ever known: the order of the selections, death as the sole certain perspective ruling the world”.
Whether or not setting all this down has done anything to relieve the unrelenting grip the “metropolis of death” holds on his mind, or whether it has tightened that hold, Kulka does not say. But since he has done the rest of us – and the world – so great a kindness by writing his book, one hopes for his sake the former. Ending in Jerusalem with his going “to usher in Shabbat with the children of the sons and daughters of Job the Just”, he offers the barest glint of sunlight amid a thunderous darkness.
Simon Schama is an Financial Times contributing editor. His BBC television series ‘The History of the Jews’ is due to be aired later this year.