- Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally
Hodder, 432 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 340 27838 2
In the preface to Days of Contempt, André Malraux alerted his readers to the fact that ‘it is the concentration camps that are dealt with here.’ This was in 1935, and the first of Hitler’s concentration camps had been established only two years earlier. But this preface is misleading, for the novel is neither informative nor prophetic about the concentration camps – what it mainly reveals is the conditioning power of the historical imagination. Its hero hardly differs from the prototypes of the Romantic revolutionary, and his prison is not a camp but a stone vault. You wouldn’t think that more than a hundred years had passed since Fidelio. But as the names Dachau or Buchenwald began to appear more widely in the literature of the Thirties, it was clear that they referred to a new phenomenon – not to traditional prisons but to hutted camps spreading throughout Germany – and to a new concept: not just a way of dealing with political prisoners, but internal repression on a vast scale, embodying the very meaning of the totalitarian state.
But not much more than the names appeared in books; and what was known of them in official circles seems to have made little impression. Bruno Bettelheim tells us that from 1939 to 1942 it was impossible to get the camps and the SS taken seriously. Bettelheim was imprisoned before the war in Dachau and Buchenwald, and has given his story in The Informed Heart. From personal experience he saw only what Germans were doing to Germans – and over the whole period of the camps up to 1945, what happened inside Germany was to be an almost insignificant proportion of the holocaust.[*] He was released in 1939 and pursued his career in America. Yet none of the later accounts establishes more clearly what the camps were already designed to produce: the slave mentality, the regression to childhood, the complicity of the victims.
By 1942 the function of the camps had moved on to mass extermination. Such information about this as got out – for instance, Arthur Koestler’s description in Horizon of early experiments with gas – was not readily believed by readers who were by then in the middle of a war. There was plenty of evidence in the end, as the Allies occupied the camps: even so, much of the truth was missing. Buried under the wreckage of Europe – and the attempted cover-up operations of the SS had at least succeeded in destroying records – the truth about the camps was no easier to get at than the history of a lost civilisation. Hilberg’s thorough account in The Destruction of the European Jews was not published until 1961. The estimate of the total death-roll now stands at 12 million, of whom about half were Jews. It’s not surprising that an event so large and still mysterious should continue to give rise to a stream of publications forty years later. Schindler’s Ark is a documentary novel that like all the other reports and reconstructions seeks to establish what really happened.
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[*] Atlas of the Holocaust, by Martin Gilbert. Michael Joseph, 256 pp., £9.95., 1982, 0 7181 2160 0.